Labelize Me: Confrontational information

The other day, I mentioned on Twitter that I ended up voting against requiring labels on genetically modified food because the initiative in question required that they be on the front of the box.

I also called it “fearmongering,” a loaded word, but one that I chose on purpose.

Sarah Schact, one of the people I was replying to, asked great followup questions:

Really? Labels and transparency into fear-mongering? How do you react to grams of cholesterol on nutrition labels? They are required to print it on the nutrition label. Why would front versus back matter in terms of “fear-mongering?”

Although I replied on Twitter, it got me thinking about the distinction between making information available, which I’m all in favor of, and making information confrontational, which I’m generally opposed to.

Let’s start with the specific example of labeling genetically modified foods.

I confess up front: I don’t care about this issue. I would not use a label, wherever it appeared on the package. If adding jellyfish DNA made carrots more appealing for my kids, I say chomp chomp.

Regardless, given how many people want that info, I’m OK (if unenthusiastic, in this instance) with putting that on the box. I don’t keep kosher, but I’m happy manufacturers use the kosher label. (Not legally required, I realize.) I’m not allergic to peanuts, but I’m happy that food manufacturers are required to put “made with peanuts” on the nutritional label.

Requiring information of interest to consumers to be on the box, legible, not camouflaged among the fine print — that’s a good thing. That’s transparency. That’s useful labeling. That is making information available.

Requiring that info to appear on the front of the box, however, moves into making information confrontational . That’s how we treat, for example, warning labels on cigarette packages, or parental advisory stickers on music. The information not just findable. We do everything we can to make sure that you can’t achieve your goal without seeing this information first.

(The front of the package, of course, is also where companies themselves put information they think will help the product sell. These are the chocolate chip Eggos. This syrup has no high fructose corn syrup. I don’t claim the territory as it exists is particularly high-minded — it’s a brander’s playground.)

I would not be in favor of requiring “produced in a facility that also processes nuts” on the front of the box.

Making information confrontational is aggressive, not neutral. People who don’t care about that information are rarely thankful for it.

Are you excited to see the unskippable anti-piracy message before watching a movie? Do you love the popup that asks you to sign up for the newsletter and insists on being dismissed before you go anywhere else on the site?

Aggression can be justified. Those cigarette warnings are blunt, scientifically proven facts that have saved lives. They’re like seat belts — maybe annoying, but there’s an argument for requiring them.

But generally, people think their cause is worth being aggressive, but get annoyed when other causes get in their face. Tipper Gore and her cohorts were genuinely concerned about lyrics, which didn’t make rebellious rock fans any happier. The movie industry really wants you to think twice about pirating those movies, which doesn’t keep me from cursing at the anti-piracy warning.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, people who support mandatory pre-abortion counseling believe that it’s a force for good. Those of us who think it’s an offensive waste of time at best are not mollified by their intent.

For some people, if the cause is just, it’s not enough for the information they deem important to be available. You should have to swat it out of your face if you want to ignore it.

Sticking information on the front of the box is designed to make you care about the issue. Putting information in the existing nutritional info, a spot where interested consumers know to look, is genuine information transparency.

Context matters.

Whether or not you think GMO labeling should be required, I’m unclear why that information should be more prominent and less ignorable than information such as calorie count, the presence of common allergens, or the list of ingredients.

If I were morally outraged by genetically modified food, or even concerned, maybe I’d have voted the other way anyway. (Probably not proudly, but with a “better than nothing” attitude.)

But I’m not. I’m not excited about voting Monsanto’s way, but that was more appealing than supporting, however mildly, an effort to stigmatize some kinds of food.