Food Labeling Issues, Design & Regulation

A Label for All

In 1994, a supermarket in Mexico City was closed for 72 hours following public outrage over the disregard of government regulations that required all product labels to be translated into Spanish.

Consumer protection standards like these can, for the most part, be attributed to misleading advertising practices commonly seen in the ‘60s, with slogans like: “Give your throat a vacation…smoke a fresh cigarette.” Or food labels that stated: “Butter is good. Butter is slippery. That’s why we eat as much as possible to lubricate our arteries and veins.”

Today the demand for greater transparency is also affecting the packaging industry with additional labeling requirements. Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund International, explains. “Labels were originally conceived to protect consumers from dishonest practices. But today, labels can motivate companies to reformulate their products.”

However, food labels are not just nutritional. They can also include information about fair trade, whether foods were grown organically, or their carbon footprint. The European advocacy program, Labelling Matters, aims to include information about the method of production in meat and dairy products. The organization’s Project Manager Ffinlo Costain says independent research shows three quarters of consumers support their efforts. “Consumers can be confused by existing labels, many of which imply natural outdoor conditions with a high welfare for animals, even when they have been reared intensively indoors,” he explains. “Point of sale labeling is the best way to accurately inform consumers about the food they buy.”

But how much information do consumers want? And what is the best way to provide it?

EUFIC, the European Food Information Council, found that only a quarter of British consumers look actively for information about nutrition in the buying process. Their research also shows that current labels don’t always change behavioral patterns. While demand for information is high, the desired impact won’t work unless labeling is made more attractive and efficient. “We can never expect labeling to work on its own,” claims Hawkes. Current labels are effective for the consumers that are already aware of health concerns, but to reach other stakeholders, “labeling needs to be accompanied with things like price incentives or education programs.”

According to Hawkes, governments can help with standardization. “There needs to be consistency between the labels,” she says. Finding the right label – albeit informative and appealing – requires a high degree of cooperation between legislators, companies, consumers and, ultimately, the designers who bring it all together.

Laura Brunow Miner is a San Francisco-based designer that worked as a judge in the Rethink the Food Label project of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News21 program and Good Magazine. “It is hard for designers to cram all the required information into the allotted space,” she says. “But anytime we can apply new understanding about education, nutrition or information design to an old problem, I think we can make real progress.”

Nutrition facts tables are the most common and widespread tools among designers, while there is a trend in Western countries for graphical labeling. The UK is a pioneer in this space, having implemented a traffic light system that uses red, amber or green color coding to provide information on specific nutrients at a glance. Other regions like Australia have introduced systems including star ratings.

Renee Walker won Berkeley’s contest with a design that used a color coded system with simple iconography. “I do not see this label as an answer to the current problem with how we choose our food – there are too many economic and cultural problems at play here – but I do see this collaboration as an opportunity for us to think about how designers might begin to partner with other disciplines so they may begin to bring clarity and attention where it is needed most,” she said.

A partnership between design and technology may offer more possibilities to satisfy all types of information demands. Since the industry is moving more into electronic labels – flat, printable circuits and sensors – customers are now privy to a way of monitoring all the necessary information and doing it in an entertaining manner while providing companies with an easy means of collecting customer insights. To benefit both the producer and the consumer, the future of packaging culture could be the e-label.