During this week's Food Dialogues, held in Chicago and sponsored by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, expert panelists tackled the topic of food labeling. Ellie Krieger, author and Food Network host, moderated the panel, titled, "Transparency and Food: Our Responsibility to Make Information Available to Today's Consumer."
"Sometimes what people really want is just simpler information. Our challenge and as an end user – chefs, restaurants – has to be to provide more background about how food got there and less about the mere science and nutritional component," said panelist Brad Nelson, corporate chef and vice president of culinary at Marriott International.
Proper nutritional information does have a health impact, however, maintained Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary at USDA. She added that following USDA regulation that required trans fats to be disclosed on nutrition facts panels, studies showed a 58% decrease in trans fat levels in the blood of white adults between 2000 and 2009.
"That declaration influenced what to buy but more profoundly, it influenced manufacturers because they didn't want to expose trans fats in their products, Merrigan said.
In other cases, consumers begin the demand for a certain label, said Jim Riddle, organic berry farmer from Minnesota. "Because we had a publicly debated standards declaration in organic labels, we've seen tremendous response in growth of demand for organic. And now they're asking for GM labeling.
"Whether it's right or wrong, the customer is always right," Riddle said.
Bo Stone, farmer from North Carolina, wasn't so sure about that. He shared the story of bringing consumers to his farm and having them tell him how they understood that the white eggs came from the hens, so that means "the brown eggs come from the roosters, right?"
The story got a big laugh but panelists also shook their heads, commenting on the lack of scientific understanding in the general population.
Jayson Lusk, author and ag economist at Oklahoma State University, warned against the perceptions of certain labels. "Sometimes people want organic or local because they perceive it to be healthier. The fear I have is that label claims cause people to believe things that aren't true. That's the opposite of transparency, I think."
In the end, the question for Gene Kahn, former president of Cascadian Farms, was, "Which consumers want more information?
"Not to say if 2% of shoppers want it, it's irrelevant. But how should farmers behave based on demands in the marketplace. It's an important market but a relatively small market," Kahn added.
"We can't answer well the question about how to present information to consumers," Lusk concluded. "But those who do it well will grow."
For more on the Food Dialogues or to watch the panel discussion, check out www.fooddialogues.com or check out coverage of past Food Dialogues events:
Genetic Modification, a Hot Topic at Food Dialogues: Part One
Genetic Modification, a Hot Topic at Food Dialogues: Part Two
Food Dialogues: Perceptions, Reality, Media And Marketing
Agriculture And Entertainment Talk About Food
Biotechnology Spurs Talk At Food Dialogues