A new initiative to develop a food labeling system for the front of food packages was announced last week by the Grocery Manufacturers Association in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute. This seems like a dumb way to make consumers smart. Let me explain.
We can all agree that shoppers should have access to as much nutritional information as possible when making food choices, both in the store and at home. And packaging is a logical place to start that process. But there are some serious questions about how they receive the information, from whom, and how easily they are able to make critical decisions about what this information means to them personally.
The British Food Standard Agency has a traffic light labeling system, shown above, backed up by a rudimentary website. The FDA site has some very basic but confusing information. And many North American food manufacturers and food retailers, like this informative Living Well page on the Stop & Shop site, have developed their own proprietary approaches to presenting nutritional information to consumers. Some helpful, some not so much.
I am going to keep my recommendations simple . . . because the issue is so complex. And honestly I am not a food scientist or food regulator, just a designer with 30 years experience in deciding how best to present information to shoppers on a package.
So here is my 4-Step plan
1. Put nutrition information on the front . . . hey it can’t hurt
2. Present that information in a clean, simple, and standardized way
3. Add a 3-D barcode linking the shopper to a web site
4. Build a vibrant and independent community of interest on that web site
Yikes, its not like this community thing is a new idea. Nike has been doing it for years with their Nike+. Interested in a geolocation community go to myGarmin, or adaptive rowing go to concept2.com. You get my point.
It is very clear that we are all becoming more connected. You know the drill, High School friends are popping up out of nowhere, business associates are linked via twitter, and family is only a text message away. So doesn’t simply printing information, statically, on the front of a box seem old school?
My point is a simple one. Most people don’t like making important lifestyle decisions in the middle of a busy aisle at Stop & Shop. Their toddler in the cart is fidgety, or they are exhausted after a long day, or they are a senior who has forgotten their reading glasses.
So the front panel of a package is a great place to start a consumer journey towards greater transparency and understanding of their food choices, but it should only be the first step in that journey, not the final solution.
If food manufacturers really wanted to contribute to understanding, they should help consumers build a community, not just print a limited amount of nutrition information on the front of a corn flakes box.
The image above is typical of the British traffic light labelling system
Here is a background piece on this issue in the NY Times