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Food Labels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

New journal article looks at growing grocery store phenomenon and how consumers react


Cage Free.

Free Range.

Go to the grocery store right now and you’ll see labels like this on dozens of products, and the number seems to grow every day. They are called “process labels” because they indicate how the food was produced, not the traditional label information such as calories, nutritional content, or ingredients.

“As kids, we were taught that we are what we eat,” says Kent Messer of the University of Delaware. “We want to know what we’re eating because we have a close relationship with our food.”

But how much benefit are consumers getting from all of these different labels? Could they even be causing confusion and problems in the grocery aisle? That is the focus of the paper “Labeling Food Processes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which is featured in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy.

“Process labels can serve an important role” Messer said. “These labels allow consumers to choose foods that align with their values. But that’s not all that happens.”

Messer and his co-authors examine the conflict between a consumer’s right to know versus their need to know; and go in-depth into how people react to labels, and why in some cases these labels create what Messer calls “an artificial fear in consumers.”

To gain access to the paper, or if you are interested in setting up an interview, please contact Jay Saunders in the AAEA Business Office.

ABOUT AAEA: Established in 1910, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) is the leading professional association for agricultural and applied economists, with 2,500 members in more than 20 countries. Members of the AAEA work in academic or government institutions as well as in industry and not-for-profit organizations, and engage in a variety of research, teaching, and outreach activities in the areas of agriculture, the environment, food, health, and international development. The AAEA publishes two journals, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, as well as the online magazine Choices. To learn more, visit

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