Woman buying milk.
May 31, 2018

​​​​​​​Food, Labels and Lies

 |  By: Dairy Talk

Ford trucks are the best; Chevys, not so much.


Like it or not, admit it or not, we’re all subject to branding and brand affiliations. We “know” certain brands are “best” and anything else is inferior. It’s really psychic shorthand. Brand loyalty lets us get on with our lives. No questions asked. No thinking needed. Case closed.


My affinity for Fords grew out of sitting in the cab of a 1948 Ford F150 alongside my grandpa in the 1960s as we hauled oats and flax seed from the field to the bin. That truck was my grandpa’s pride, bought “brand”-spanking new with inflation-adjusted $40/cwt milk right after the prosperity boom following World War II.  


Branding and labeling not only affects the trucks we buy, it pervades every aspect of our consuming behavior. Perhaps our strongest brand affiliations come with the food we eat.  There’s nothing more intimate than the food we put in our mouths and the food we feed our families.


Two recent consumer surveys point out the power of food labeling. The first, by Morning Consult, surveyed 2,000 American adults and asked them which food labels made grocery products less appealing. I was a bit surprised at the results. The most unappealing food label: Vegan. Thirty five percent found it unappealing, followed by ‘diet’ at 31%, and ‘sugar-free’ at 20%. ‘Gluten-free’ was found unappealing by 17%, and ‘organic’ by 13%.


In another survey, however, new-age food labels such as ‘locally-raised,’ ‘antibiotic-free,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘hormone-free,’ and ‘free-range’ were found to be positive labels by at least segment of consumers. This survey, commissioned by Charleston|Orwig, sampled 500 consumers.


More than half of these shoppers say label claims on protein packaging increased their purchase intent.

More than a quarter said a ‘locally raised’ label would increase their intent to purchase, followed by ‘natural,’ ‘antibiotic-free,’ ‘non-GMO,’ and ‘organic.’


The problem with all this is that there are few standard definitions of what ‘locally-raised’ or ‘natural’ or even ‘antibiotic-free’ actually mean. There are certainly no regulations governing their use. (Side note: We even have trouble getting the Food and Drug Administration to enforce Standards of Identity for milk, which have been on the books for decades.)


Yet consumers, particularly foodie-conscious younger consumers, purchase foods based on these nebulous, often meaningless labels. Even worse, they think they are making purchases that are good for the environment or the welfare of animals. More times than not, the reverse is true.


Nevertheless, food companies latch on to these labels in hopes of gaining market share and short-term profits. Longer term, if farming practices are legislated to support these label claims, food costs will rise. Just look at the cost of organic versus conventional, or cage-free eggs. The environment also won’t be helped as it takes far more acres to produce these commodities than those grown or raised using science-based technology.


If there was any good news in these surveys, it’s that American farmers are still trusted. In the Morning Consult survey, ‘Sourced from American Farmers’ was found appealing by 68% of respondents.


While it’s not the total solution, a program like the National Milk Producer Federation’s FARM Program is incredibly important to retaining consumer trust. It demonstrates to consumers you and every one of your dairy farming neighbors is complying with internationally recognized welfare standards.


As for the rest of it, the market will ultimately rule. These two surveys show a clear dichotomy of consumer preference. Perhaps, as with our politics, we will go our separate ways. Where do you shop: Whole Foods or Walmart?