This image of a McCormick label comes from an article we recently linked to on Sumfood's Twitter. It's an outstanding example of a practice called 'absence labeling' and is summed up nicely by the article's central question: "What’s the rationale behind the creation of a non-GMO line of spices for which there are no GMO alternatives?"
Increased sales, of course. But also confusion, and a creeping distrust of label themselves.
Sumfood's Dr Helen Darling, a food integrity expert, wrote about this practice in 2015. It's even more prescient today than it was then:
I am not here ... the rise of absence labeling
The food supply chain: where tension between marketing genius and reality can truly flourish. As news reports clamor for more labeling requirements and greater transparency of the supply chain (including noble measures such as the eradication of slavery and human trafficking) some food producers are introducing increasingly 'creative' marketing claims.
Take the case of a distilled spirit like vodka and the 'gluten-free' label. The US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has advised that distilled spirits are gluten-free unless a flavor or other additive has been added to the liquor. Nonetheless, there's the enterprising story of Tito Beveridge (real name), a Texan who aspired to make his eponymous vodka so smooth "women would drink it straight", received a Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ruling allowing his corn-based vodka to carry the 'gluten-free' tag.
Similarly, Blue Ice Potato Vodka received FDA approval for marketing their vodka as gluten-free, though their efforts to change the label seem to be partly economically motivated, at least according to the company's CEO: "We conducted tests of the new label in some liquor chains in Southern California ... when we put the label on the bottle, sales increased 40 percent." [Note: there are now at least 31 'gluten-free' vodkas.]
For anyone suffering intolerances or coeliac disease, the wider accessibility of gluten-free products has been a godsend. It’s important that we have a transparent dialogue about dietary requirements across the market.
Alongside products that don't naturally contain wheat protein, we also have products that shouldn't contain plant or animal DNA being sold as non-GMO -- for example, GMO-free rock salt. While common salt is just that, salt, there is a strange marketing need to point out that it is GMO-free (as is all salt -- unless it includes an additive which, arguably, should be labeled accordingly). In this example, if the salt contained an additive such as dextrose (used to stablise the iodide in iodized salt), a possibility exists that the salt could contain DNA (the dextrose is often derived from cane sugar) and could, therefore, be GMO.
Confused? Well, like vodka, there are many different salt options available on the market: canning and pickling salt, Kosher salt, french fry salt, lite salt, popcorn Salt ... the list is endless. It would appear that products in their 'pure' form like distilled vodka and rock salt need a marketing boost and industries are turning to proving what is not in their products to get advantage. It is plausible that we could see a non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy-free, no antibiotics, no growth-hormones water product on the market soon (also known as ... water).
The result of this is confusion for consumers. While food companies should be free to market their products in ways that lead to sales (that is what they are about, after all), there is a need to either simplify messages for consumers or increase consumer awareness of the facts and 'noise' in marketing claims.
There are a raft of international laws and regulations regarding labeling and these are constantly being reviewed and updated, ranging from debates around GMO labeling to the 2005 Codex Alimentarius Commission report on misleading food labels which noted: "Codex General Standard for the Labelling of Pre-packaged Foods states as a general principle that 'pre-packaged food shall not be described or presented on any label or in any labelling in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character in any respect.'"
Ultimately the rules and regulations are designed to protect consumers but, as with all things food related, the definition of what is required to protect, inform, or educate consumers varies considerably according to the interests and beliefs of the producer, marketing influences and political environment.
Labeling should, realistically, be limited to the absence of what you would 'normally' expect in a product or the presence of what you would 'not normally' expect to see in a product. Values-driven qualities such as free-trade, organic, dolphin-friendly, etc are philosophical decisions the producer has made which may or may not influence you to purchase a product. Generally speaking, these do not pose a health risk such as that experienced by those with food allergies.
Finally ... a photo that is, in fact, worth a thousand words: