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Labeling for Dummies.

Major food packagers and retailers in the UK are battling their government's new guidelines to put red, yellow, and green "traffic light" symbols on packaged foods. The government-backed traffic-light symbols would alert consumers to which foods have high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. Tesco, the UK's largest food retailer, has rejected the traffic lights and said it will stick with its own food label symbols which are based on daily allowances. Most of the other food retailers are saying they will follow the government's traffic light system, but the major food manufacturers, including Kraft, Kellogg's, Nestle, and Pepsi, have withdrawn from the UK's Food Standards Agency and taken the position that the traffic light codes are "potentially misleading."


Whatever eventually happens about label information here in the US, both consumers and the food industry would be better served in the long run if packagers could come up with and market-test innovative and easy-to-trust labels with or without traffic light signals.

American approaches could attempt to deliver the information that American customers are looking for in formats and styles that Americans will find appealing and easy to understand. Hopefully, the information and its presentation could slow down and possibly even reverse the slipping image of packaged foods.

Easier to read, understand, and trust packaging and labeling could rebuild respect for packaged foods. It would do this by delivering information that will help consumers understand what's on the labels quickly and easily without having to worry about what's in the fine print. That may sound like the tail wagging the dog, but it's more like thinking from outside in instead of from inside out.

A single 40-year-old lawyer from Columbus, Ohio tells us that she "only buys packaged foods sold by Whole Foods because they don't carry the ones that are full of chemicals."

A mother of two kids under 12 says she has been hearing so much about high fructose corn syrup and "deceptive names for it that I'm trying to avoid anything with the word corn in the ingredients or ingredients that I can't read. That isn't easy to do with packaged food."

Another shopper writes that she is working at reducing her use of packaged foods to keep from getting diabetes. A long New York Times article on the rise of diabetes (1/12/06) concluded that "despite a salad here or a lower-fat oil there ..., the food industry has done little to change the basic unhealthfulness of its best-selling products. And by making the link to fitness ..., the companies are telling children that all of those foods are good for them."

Hearing these condemnations of packaged food leads consumers to move away from them as they moved away from cigarettes as evidence of their harm mounted. These consumers are cutting back on both regular and diet soft drinks, avoiding high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners wherever they find them, and trying to avoid all the chemicals that seem to be related both to eating more and to turning more of what is eaten into fat.

"Searching for Dummies" is the title of a Sunday New York Times Op-Ed column by Edward Tenner that appeared on March 26, 2006. Tenner is working on a book about unintended consequences, a subject that may be relevant to what is happening with consumers and food labels. Tenner's article blames Google for contributing to making consumers dumber, with dumbness actually measured by ability to understand what they are reading on labels. The basis for his dumbing down story is a National Center for Education Statistics report on college graduate literacy showing that ability to interpret complex texts efficiently (e.g., defined as the ability to read labels!), declined from 40% in 1992 to 31% today. Many factors are cited contributing to this change, with wide use of Google being first among them. Google has led consumers to expect instant answers that they can instantly understand. Labels have not kept up with Google information!

No wonder consumers are relying less on labels and turning away from packaged foods! This is happening in spite of the fact that some American food retailers have developed shelf programs that showcase healthier food choices. Big packaged-food companies have also taken innovative steps to a healthier image, pushing health and healthy ingredients, increasing whole grains, reducing transfats, and introducing 100-calorie packs of cookies and snacks, but so far, none of these changes have gone far enough to change consumers' perceptions.

This is a huge challenge for the food industry. What would it take to win back the trust of consumers who are turning away from packaged foods and reduce the anti-packaged foods buzz that they are generating?

Here are five starter questions that food packagers could address:

1. Can U.S. store brands or one or two large manufacturers follow Tesco in putting easy-to-understand health signposts on the front panels of their food packages?

2. Could U.S. grocery manufacturers jointly develop or spearhead some other front-panel quick-answer health symbols or packaging indicators that would help rebuild interest in labels as sources of information and trust in packaged food brands?

3. Could someone in the U.S. actually test the impact of the kind of traffic lights that the Brits are fighting? It's just possible that the traffic lights would work fast and well enough for busy shoppers to increase their confidence in and purchase of packaged foods.

4. If the above are just too much trouble, could anyone at least tweak food labels to make them easier to digest?

5. Could innovative information approaches be developed and tested in conjunction with multilingual labeling initiatives?

It's important to stop the bleeding. Consumers who turn away (whether from packaged foods, baseball, or American cars) are hard to win back.
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Author:Doyle, Mona
Publication:The Shopper Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Bilingual labels.
Next Article:Info beyond the label.

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