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New “Labels Unwrapped” Website Breaks Down the Confusing Laws Behind Food Labels

https://www.labelsunwrapped.org

Today the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law School launched a newly-revamped website that “unwraps” the laws behind food labels. Available at labelsunwrapped.org, the site provides an accessible resource for the public to explore the facts behind the many claims, stamps, and certifications commonly found on packaging.

“Food labels are meant to inform, protect, and empower consumers, but more often they are incredibly confusing,” said CAFS Director Laurie Beyranevand. “Walking through the aisles of a grocery store, shoppers are bombarded with information. From certifications to various types of health claims, ambiguous and sometimes deceptive language and imagery makes it difficult to really know what we’re purchasing and eating.”

The website explains many of the common terms and claims found on labels through a series of interactive illustrated labels spanning different product categories: protein, dairy, grains, produce, fats and oils, sweets, and supplements. Users can hover over the various claims on each to learn more about common marketing terms like “gluten free,” “all natural,” “USDA organic,” “grass-fed,” and dozens more. Straightforward explanations outline what each claim means, as well as how (and if) it is regulated, and by whom. A “Labels 101” section provides a breakdown of the general law of food labels and frequently asked questions.

The site also includes a section of issue briefs related to more pressing and controversial topics that will be continuously updated. “From new requirements that companies label ‘bioengineered’ foods, to marketing claims on plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, to the future of labeling cell-cultured meat, laws are complex and changing quickly,” said Cydnee Bence, an LLM fellow at CAFS who worked extensively on the site’s content. “We’re diving into the most contentious issues as they occur and will continue to build out resources that address them in an accessible, objective way.” 

The Labels Unwrapped project first launched in 2015 with a grant from an anonymous donor. Its original rendition was a collaborative effort between CAFS and student web designers at Dartmouth College’s DALI Lab. The new website, made possible with funding from the USDA’s National Agricultural Library, provides much-needed updates. It is completely redesigned, reflects new standards, and incorporates new content addressing dietary supplements, plant-based proteins, and the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

“Existing resources explaining how to read food labels are highly technical and often fail to serve the needs of the public—not only consumers, but also small producers who may be confounded by the overly-complex regulatory landscape,” Beyranevand said. “With this user-friendly resource, our goal is to make the law more accessible, ultimately empowering users to take charge of their purchasing decisions.”

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About the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) 

Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) uses law and policy to build a more sustainable and just food system. In partnership with local, regional, national, and international partners, CAFS addresses food system challenges related to food justice, food security, farmland access, animal welfare, worker protections, the environment, and public health, among others. CAFS works closely with its partners to provide legal services that respond to their needs and develop resources that empower the communities they serve. Through CAFS’ Food and Agriculture Clinic and Research Assistant program, students work directly on projects alongside partners nationwide, engaging in innovative work that spans the food system. Visit www.vermontlaw.edu/cafs to learn more.