Increasingly complex demands for labelling brought by consumer protection groups are based on the assumption that consumers will make better decisions at food stores if more information is available on labels. New labelling requirements fall into three broad categories, GM content, nutritional value, and pricing. One disturbing trend in Latin America is implementation of labelling requirements at the state and municipal level, as activists try to force food producers and retailers to meet their labelling demands. Steve Lewis investigates:

Consumer groups justify their demands for ever-more-comprehensive labelling by referring to the consumer’s right to know. They often fail to take into account the time, effort, and expense required for food producers and supermarkets to comply.

One particularly disturbing trend in Latin America is implementation of labelling requirements at the state and municipal level. Frustrated at their inability to push through national legislation, consumer and environmental activists are attempting to create a plethora of local ordinances that will ultimately force food producers and retailers to meet their labelling demands. The labelling issue is especially complex for companies that market food products internationally and are forced to comply with a host of national and regional requirements.

Multiple new requirements in Brazil

Brazil is becoming a particularly difficult market when it comes to new labelling requirements. In March of this year the Third Superior Court upheld a regulation enacted in the state of Bahia that requires supermarkets to affix alphanumeric price labels to food and beverages sold to the public. The court’s ruling was based on a long-standing federal law requiring that all products sold in Brazil be labelled in Portuguese.

Consumer activists in that Brazilian state pushed for the price labelling legislation using the argument that bar codes deprive consumers of legible pricing information on products. They claimed that food stores stand to benefit from the new price labels because they will avoid price-related disputes at the check out counter. Supermarkets argue that affixing labels to products in a supermarket is both costly and time consuming, and that consumers will ultimately pay for the additional labelling.

In March Brazil’s National Sanitation Monitoring Agency issued a resolution requiring that more extensive nutritional information be affixed to food and beverage packaging. The resolution calls for a nutritional chart that shows the percentage of minimum daily requirements for ingredients. The resolution supports a health ministry initiative aimed at combating the growing rate of obesity by better informing consumers of the nutritional value of the foods and beverages they consume.

Controversy over GM labelling

The controversy over GM labelling continues to brew throughout Latin America and in other developing nations around the world. Given the lack of firm evidence that GM products pose an immediate threat to humans and the environment, most governments just wish that the issue would go away so that they can concentrate on serious health-threatening problems like malnutrition, disease, and a lack of basic public services.

After seven failed attempts at passing a GM labelling bill though Argentina’s congress, Greenpeace and Argentine activists are focusing their efforts at the municipal and state levels. The first success came in the municipality of Bariloche in Patagonia. In May, the city council announced that all food stores must identify foods that contain GM ingredients. The first stage in the requirement calls for stores to post a list of all GM products within view of all consumers. Supporters of the measure, including Greenpeace, Argentina, made it clear that the Baroliche victory is just the first stage in a new strategy for accomplishing its goal of nationwide GM labelling.

GM labelling is by far the most problematic of recent requirements because of its impact on the entire food supply chain. Activists are pressing for even trace amounts (1-3%) of GM contents to be labelled, forcing nations that produce large amounts of GM crops to segregate GM and non-GM products all the way from the farm to the final product. Even if developing nations do pass GM labelling legislation, it will be impossible for them to enforce it. Monitoring the GM content of food imports would totally overload the limited number of laboratories and skilled technicians available, making it impossible to test for proven threats such as BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, and avian influenza.

By Steve Lewis, correspondent