The Risk-Monger


From the time I was young, I was taught that labelling was bad. It was a means to restrict, pigeon-hole and limit someone or something. Labels were stigmatising and undesired. At the same time, labels were informative – it helped those intellectually challenged (most of us) to understand and take decisions (and for risk managers to avoid responsibility: Attention: This cup of coffee may be hot!).

At its heart, labels are necessary in situations where distrust is rooted. If I meet a new doctor, I would feel better if I see a diploma on the wall. If I have a surprisingly expensive meal in a restaurant, I would like to see an itemised bill. But if I trust someone or something, labels have no purpose. If I pick an apple off of a tree, I will not demand to see a label to know that it is fresh. If my mother cooks me lunch, I will not demand to see her list of ingredients (unless I have serious parental trust issues). When in doubt give it a credibility sniff (ie, check the label) … and those who have little trust in authorities demand labels on everything.

In a world without trust, transparency is the cardinal virtue, thus labelling is essential. I have questioned before whether transparency is actually virtuous, but for the purpose of this analysis, let us accept that people expect it today. Transparency though has its built in contradictions: it does not build trust, but rather cements the underlying distrust, or, and this is the sweet spot for activist campaigners, where there was previously trust, the more transparency is demanded, the less there is trust. Let us consider an example:

Suppose my wife trusts me. She is not going to ask me where I have been all day since she expects that I had been making correct (fidelity) decisions. However, if my wife does not trust me, she will expect a detailed (transparent) schedule of where I had been (and may check up on some of my contacts). Now assume my wife trusts me but every day I feel compelled to continually tell her, and show her proof, about my whereabouts. Will her trust strengthen or weaken?

People who trust the food chain do not demand labels and don’t bother to read them (but food paranoid people do). But as labels get bigger and the debate gets louder, those who had previously trusted the food supply start getting suspicious. This is the clever objective of the anti-industry food chain activists demanding GMO labelling in the US.

Controlling the label is an attempt to impose authority in a power game (which makes the whole labelling debate such a hot issue for those with issues against institutions). Part of the plain package cigarette labelling game is the chance for the anti-smoking campaigners to give it big time to the tobacco industry. Those campaigning for GMO labelling in the US have wet dreams about seeing Monsanto dismembered as a company. The alcohol labelling demands are coming mostly from the temperance movement’s long-term desire to hurt the spirits and brewing industries. By using the public’s expectation of transparency (and the distrust that inherently underlies it), anti-industry activist campaigners are proudly using labelling as a public trust undermining tool.

Of course there is hypocrisy in the labelling distrust game. The activists only demand labelling for things they do not like or want to see restricted (GMOs, sugary foods, cigarettes, alcohol, non-organic food). They are not demanding that their shiny Apple phones have electromagnetic field exposure risks slapped on the screens in the shops. Activists are not demanding carbon labelling on solar panels (hint: CO2 emissions to produce panels are very high). There is no demand that coffee be labelled as carcinogenic or an endocrine disruptor. But let’s not pretend to be surprised with the presence of hypocrisy from the environmental activist community.

So what should industry do?

  • Take the poison pill and just label it. Refusing to be transparent, for whatever reason, undermines trust and credibility. Letting a bunch of loudmouthed NGOs funded by the organics lobby lead the debate and set the terms is like letting a convention of fundamentalist preachers determine the sex education curriculum in the public schools system.
  • Don’t keep talking about it. The more industry (biotech companies, supermarkets and food manufacturers) campaign against labelling GMOs in the US, the more it seems they have something to hide and the wider the public distrust spreads. And as a reaction, they have created a monster: the pro-organic industry Justlabelit lobbying force grew with the noise.
  • Are labels read? When was the last time you read the terms and conditions to an online purchase? Most people do not read labels (unless they are afraid or generally skittish), very rarely the entire label and even if they do, it hardly affects their decisions (I was alarmed to discover how many calories were in feta cheese, but as I love feta, it did not change my behaviour). Supermarket videomining studies have shown again and again how fast most consumers move a product from shelf to cart, without time to look at much more than the price.
  • Forget about logic and principle. Public trust is not a rational creature. The industry position on GMO labelling in the US is rational: a GMO source is not an ingredient. But debates on food are rarely rational (I hesitate to say “never”). Any uncertainty about anything that goes into my body (or my child’s body) gets amplified beyond any other risk decision-making processes. Outrage grows when consumers do not get what they want or expect, and what they want or expect changes quite regularly.
  • GMO labelling is the short-term flavour of the month. Consumer studies try to identify public concerns and brands and then market their products accordingly. The recent cover story on Fortune showed how food consumption trends moved from low-fat to low-calorie to gluten/lactose-free to today’s demand for GMO or chemical-free (as if food was not made of chemicals) and that brands are labelling to meet consumer concerns. While it is obscene to think that the success of the organic industry lobbying has meant that consumers are now more concerned about GMO-free and not paying attention to calorie or fat content, it is likely that this nonsense will stop soon and there will be other consumer fad demands (like high-fibre or pro-biotic) that will put the GMO term off of the consumer label radar (unless the US food industry prolongs the bleeding with more lobbying against GMO labelling).
  • People are not that stupid (over time). Only an idiot would assume that natural, organic or GMO-free is synonymous with healthy … unfortunately there are as many idiots out there as those who seek to profit from that deception. Food is an ongoing self-education process (we eat something, get sick, don’t eat it again). At a certain point consumers will get over the obsession with organic (perhaps because of price, quality, taste, resilience) – and they will no longer bother to study the label or be alarmed.
  • It’s your label, control the words. During the EU food labelling debate, the anti-industry activists wanted a stop-light labelling scheme on packaging. This was mal-intended to confuse the consumer into thinking that a red light meant “Stop, do not eat!” rather than to trust an individual to make an informed decision and decide whether or not a treat like chocolate is merited. Fortunately for trust in the food chain, those little NITS failed. A food producer controls the label and can present the message (within reasonable parameters). So the label: “Contains GMOs” does not mean you have to put horns and a tail on the “O”. As the acronym “GMO” is not strictly defined, you can ask your PR manager to find a consumer-friendly expression like: “genetically enhanced for …” and add your target term (freshness, safety, better yields, better quality, sustainable farming …). The organic activists will hiss and mock, but you will have complied with their main demands and they will lose a stick to beat you with.
  • Understand that labelling is the regulator’s path of least resistance. Policy-makers start every day in their office with the following prayer: “Please Lord grant that, today, nothing will happen. I will not have to be confronted with a decision that may have consequences; I will not have to say anything; and I will not have to answer to someone’s demand. And Lord, if Thou must, please give me a means to pass the responsibility onto someone else. Amen.” If industry accepts labelling, responsibility is passed onto the consumer (I believe they call it empowerment) and the regulator will be pleased as peaches that everyone will then leave him or her alone to go to meetings, make speeches and look busy.
  • Play up the organic lobbyists’ hypocrisy. The organic food industry is lobbying unfairly and unethically and need to be called out on that. They pretend that organic pesticides are not toxic. They pretend that they can feed the world organically. They pretend that conventional pesticides are dangerous to human health. They pretend that organic farming does not destroy biodiversity or lead to increased deforestation. They pretend that they do not lobby or pay off their activist gurus. They pretend that their organic junk-food is healthy. They pretend that they don’t think we are that stupid to believe them.
  • And finally, get rid of your advisers. Any industry that had been advised to resist labelling and battle against the public will to have transparency must have consultants who think they can fill their timesheets up with false promises of a successful resistance campaign. These consultants know nothing about the dominant narrative, public trust and public relations. Fire them before your next RFP (which will be to try to restore trust in your industry).
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