Ivo Vegter

Rethinking the costly food label madness

It is expensive to analyse food to comply with mandatory food labelling laws. Expensive, and in many cases, entirely superfluous. Voluntary labelling achieves most of the same benefits, but at a significantly lower cost of implementation and compliance policing. Cheaper food sounds like smart policy, in this day and age.

Sharply rising food prices in recent years have led to alarming increases in hunger, malnutrition and even social unrest. These consequences are particularly acute in countries with high levels of poverty, such as South Africa.


The causes of food price inflation are manifold, and I wouldn’t want to diminish others, but among them are onerous regulations such as detailed food labelling that are expensive to implement and enforce.

Some argue mandatory food labelling is justifiable on the basis that it limits fraud. This is not quite true. Fraud constitutes deception perpetrated by means of false claims. It requires positive claims that are known to be false, or egregious omissions of known facts that would change the decision of a buyer.

Simply not bothering to specify detailed product features does not constitute fraud. If a buyer wants to know, the onus is on the buyer to ask or to do business with someone who chooses to specify the features the buyer is interested in.

It should be noted that labels aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. Vague propaganda about what constitutes “organic” or whether it is good for you – and recent research has found it makes no difference at all – doesn’t make for a more informed buying public.

Moreover, in cases when one might be interested in the nutritional content of food, such as when buying fresh bread, fruit, vegetables or meat, labels are neither required nor practical anyway.

Ironically, the sort of business model that most appeals to the food-label fascists and eco-hippies – farmer’s markets, home industries and “locavore” eateries – is the least well equipped to implement the kind of rigorous production process control and complex analysis that commercial food labelling requires. Costly and complex regulation always harms well-resourced incumbents less than it harms small competitors, so it constitutes a relative competitive advantage for big business. It suits large supermarket chains to support food labelling laws, because they know mom-and-pop greengrocer and butchery stores don’t enjoy the economies of scale they need to readily absorb these costs.

That doesn’t mean there are no legitimate reasons to seek out foods that are labelled……

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