Rest In Peace: Voluntary Food Packaging Label "Mark"


Image credit:original from Smart Choices website. Cross added to indicate change of status.

The US packaged food industry Smart Choices labeling program, which went from front-of-package to front page "FAIL" in the space of just two months, began, as our earlier post described, as a label, "...whereby consumers can see if their food purchases meet the criteria set forth by the program for healthy eating. ...Kellogg's Froot Loops meets those criteria. Other smart choices include Fudgsicles, Lunchables and Mayonnaise." The just-suspended label was an industry designed and managed, voluntary effort which seemed designed to fend off a prospective government (FDA) standard for food labeling. New York Times explains that they are suspending operations, which, assuming FDA moves ahead, means "RIP," just in time for Halloween.Industry consensus standards, in general, can have several very useful functions; chief among them, to deliver standard product performance metrics and to limit the presence of hazardous materials or design aspects which are deemed to present unacceptable health, safety, or environmental risks. Especially risks which would adversely impact consumer trust or interest in the product sector.

Voluntary standards can be problematic, however.


  • Consumers have no direct involvement in setting them. Corporate market research and sales trends is about it.

  • Reaching a consensus among competitors takes forever unless they are pushed by the prospect of a rigorous government standard. That may well have been the case here.

  • If the voluntary standard uses a "negative screen, the "bar" is likely to default to the lowest possible setting so no product or brand is left looking without merit. Such attempts are laughed at by the public. But it still happens.

  • If the standard uses a "positive screen" and only represents products of the big players, as appears to have been the case with Smart Choice, small businesses offering competing products may be presumed by an uniformed public to be 'not as good' without any basis in fact.

  • There is no third-party verification. So participants can just make stuff up; and

  • There is virtually no evidence, even anecdotal, that voluntary standards offered by the largest manufacturers encourage fast conformance by smaller, non-participating businesses.

Industries wanting voluntary standard that really work certainly have the option of working with third-party certifiers on a continuing basis. That costs money and introduces the risk of a product not passing muster.

They also have the option of giving small and new product makers in the sector free or low cost entry fees - if indeed it is the intention to drive all producers toward offering healthier products to consumers.

More posts on food and nutrition labeling.
Questionable Intelligence Surrounding "Smart Choices" Food Label ...
7 Food Certification Programs You Need to Eat Green :
USDA Grass-Fed Beef Label in the Works

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