Market forces in food

A fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning:

Simplicity Becomes a Selling Point

The authors document numerous ways in which food manufacturers are shifting to simpler ingredient lists and displaying those lists more prominantly.

Last week, Snapple Beverage unveiled a reformulated line of drinks and an eight-figure marketing campaign emphasizing that its iced teas are made from green and black tea and “real” sugar. Frito-Lay is boasting that its potato chips, tortilla chips and even Fritos are each made with just three ingredients. The hope: that consumers will equate fewer ingredients with healthfulness, even when it comes to ice cream and chips.

“It’s a convergence of health, food safety, taste and traceability,” said Phil Lempert, a food and consumer behavior analyst who calls himself the Supermarket Guru. “People are reading labels more carefully than they were previously. When they pick up a product and it has 30 ingredients and they don’t know what half of them are, they are putting it back on the shelves.”

This seems a very good development. Of course, there’s an element of greenwashing here, but greenwashing in the service of an admirable change is not the end of the world.

What I find interesting here is that once again, consumer demand and cultural shifts are doing a far better job than most government policies at creating a needed change. This new approach from food companies has very little to do with proposed laws; it’s all about the news and people’s shopping habits. If this really takes hold, far ahead of slow-moving government efforts to reform the food system, it has the potential to change our food system far to the better. Just like sweatshops and organics in Walmart, these shifts are happening because of customer feedback to companies who then willingly respond in an effective way, not well-meaning laws that force companies to respond in an ineffective way.

Now, there is very much a role for government here. Rather than mandating over-zealous food safety standards, government could instead mandate better packaging and ingredient standards. Requiring processors to make ingredient lists large and prominent, with the source of every ingredient (lists if necessary), would go a long way toward allowing customers to make the sort of informed decisions that appropriately influence a free market. Let customers make their own food choices, but make it very clear on the bag, box, or carton exactly how many countries those ingredients came from, what they are, and so on. Heck, I’d even consider requiring produce to have an informational card stating what pesticides and fertilizers were used.

Companies like Dole are moving toward this sort of thing, by inserting codes that you can enter online to see the farm on which the fruit came from. That’s cute, but far too susceptible to greenwashing. But it’s a start, and if they start doing the same thing for ingredients and growing/production methods, we’d really get somewhere. Imagine if Product A came with a large label saying “ingredients potentially from countries T-Z, with products from facilities in states A-D, final assembly in F”. That’s entirely doable from the manufacturer’s point of view, and provides the consumer with the information they need to make a decision. And, if you’re going to pass a top-down one-size-fits-all law, at least pass one that’s naturally easier on producers already doing what you want the law to achieve (like small farms and simple foods, for whom this would be quite easy to comply with).

Government itself is not the problem, just the current philosophy of how it should be applied.

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