Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Consumers world over are befuddled by the label declarations that appears on the front of a food pack, especially with reference to the dates printed by the manufacturer before releasing to the market. The labeling laws vary from country to country, though the intentions of the law makers are to help and guide the consumers to pick and choose products that are safe and good. The million dollar question is whether these laws are really helping the consumer or not while wading through the isles of a super market where thousands of products are displayed trying to attract the attention of the consumers and persuade them to buy their wares in preference to others. If reports from different parts of the world are to be believed, labeling creates more confusion and uncertainty among the consumers, most of them being ignorant of the implications of the date figures displayed on the label.

Why do the law makers insist on the industry to make label declarations on each and every pack of processed/packed foods that go out of the manufacturer's premises? There was a time during the evolution of food industry when consumers used to buy their foods based on appearance and touch as packing was not in vogue then. The world being a small place such a situation was normal with small communities with access to local markets where fresh foods were sold loose without tamper proof seals as that exists to day. Naturally number of food items to choose also was a minuscule of what is being offered in modern markets. It is only when centralized processing and distribution of the products over a wide geographical area started about 5 decades ago, the necessity was felt for uniform declaration mode that can communicate with the consumer regarding the nature of the content present inside the sealed packs. Over a period of time labeling regulations became more and more stringent and demanding because of the perceived helplessness of the consumer in choosing the right product of their expectation.

Food industry development in any country traditionally follows a route where processing forms a small part of the food landscape and with economic development the extent of processed foods in the every day diet starts climbing progressively. In many wealthy countries processed foods form as much as 80% of the daily diet of the population while in poorer ones it could be as low as 10%. The necessity for transparency between the industry and the consumer is some thing no nation will be prepared to compromise and therefore in keeping with the aspirations of the consumer, regulatory authorities tend to be more and more demanding from the industry to inform truth about their products. Thus labeling is a tool that is vital for creating confidence among the consumers regarding the quality and safety of manufactured food products. It is unfortunate that industry players in many parts of the world tend to focus too much on profitability ignoring the consumer concerns.

Most recent example of the industry trying to roughshod the interests of the consumer is the big fight now in view in the US for the consumer right to know whether industry products in the market contain genetically manipulated ingredients or not. While every one agrees that Genetically Modified (GM) foods are not natural measured by any standards, what is being disputed is the safety of foods in which GM food components are used, especially on long term use or their multigenerational consequences on the consumer.It is strange that the federal as well state governments in that country lack the courage to take a scientifically and ethically sound decision regarding the right of the consumer to know the presence of GM food ingredients in the foods they consume. In stead the so called ballot initiatives are organized where people are asked to decide whether they want GM food label declaration to be made mandatory! No wonder the GM food giants bankroll this referendum by pumping millions of dollars to brain wash the citizens that GM foods are absolutely safe and natural and need not be declared on the label. Safety activists are no match to these industry giants and most of the referendums end up in favor of the industry.    

Coming back to date marking in food labels. a recent survey by the public safety organization NSF International found that most people are confused by the label declarations made in thousands of products marketed even in an enlightened country like the US where literacy rates are considered high. More damaging is the assertion by this agency that food labeling causes more foods being thrown away by the consumers because of their perception that the food is unfit for consumption after the dates indicated on the label. The survey found one in four Americans do not throw away food past the expiration date while more than half throw out food based off the "best used by" date and another third discard food based on the "sell by" date. What is not realized is that the "sell by" and "best used by" dates are more for the sellers than the consumers and the products can often remain in good condition for a week or two after the marked date. 78 percent of people throw away most dairy products after the label date has passed without realizing the marked date is almost always a "sell by" date, a guideline for the stores. Similarly eggs are often still good after the date expiry and people can always crack one open to see if the yolk is flat, which would indicate it has gone bad. 

It is often not realized that the industry is invariably playing it safe when it comes to date marking in order to avoid any possible health hazards with a diverse consumer population base with different vulnerabilities and also to protect them selves from future litigation in the event of unexpected mishaps. An ideal solution to this Catch 24 situation is for the industry to declare on the label a definitive date beyond which the contents are not safe to consume. But it is it feasible? Probably not because of the massive data to be generated on each and every product through time consuming and costly scientific studies. Ultimately the buck stops at the consumer door and an educated consumer has to shoulder the responsibility to decide whether a date expired food is good, bad or dangerous to eat. Economic considerations are to be weighed against the safety or otherwise of date expired foods if to be consumed.



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