There is a scene in the quirky cable TV comedy show “Portlandia” — set in the Oregon city — in which a waitress takes an order from a couple at a restaurant.
FEMALE CUSTOMER: I guess I do have a question about the chicken …
WAITRESS: The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts.
MALE CUSTOMER: This is local?
WAITRESS: Yes, absolutely.
The exchange continues as the couple peppers the waitress with questions about the chicken’s biography — was it organic, where was it raised, did it have friends?
The waitress answers each question and then goes one step further.
“The chicken you’re enjoying tonight, his name was Colin,” she says without a hint of irony. “Here are his papers.”
The satirical scene is indicative of a growing trend in consumer transparency. Customers want to know what’s in their food, where it was grown, what’s in the packaging and where their clothes were made.
The public’s appetite for more information is prompting lawmakers to push for more transparency. Just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration created a definition for “gluten free” on food labeling to aid those with celiac disease.
But there also are plenty of corporate interests fighting hard to stem the flow of information.
In Maine, in the past legislative session, opponents lined up to fight two consumer transparency bills — one aimed at requiring labels on all food produced through genetic engineering and prohibiting use of the adjective “natural” on genetically modified products; the other seeking to mandate labeling of all plastic products that contain the controversial chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, which poses risks to pregnant women and children.
Manufacturers of genetically modified foods and products that contain BPA have argued that labeling would be expensive and potentially damaging to their businesses. Companies such as biotechnology giant Monsanto have pledged to challenge the legality of the GMO-labeling bill, which passed in June but is on hold until four other adjacent states pass similar laws.
The BPA bill passed, too, but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill is almost certain to be brought up again.
Even if neither bill becomes law, both pieces of legislation helped spur broader public debates and have prompted some product and food manufacturers to take a proactive approach to transparency.
“I think there are some companies that are seeing this consumer demand and seizing on the market for transparency,” said Mike Belliveau, head of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, which lobbied heavily for the BPA bill.
The push for transparency is not limited just to food. Consumers are getting more information than ever on things like cleaning products, cosmetics, clothes, cars and houses.
Ravi Dhar, professor of management marketing and director of the Yale University Center for Customer Insights, said the societal shift is twofold: The total quantity of information has increased, and there are now more producers of that information.
“More information can only be good and valuable,” said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, which also lobbied for the BPA bill. “The more information we have, the more we can try to control decisions made by corporations that don’t always have consumer interests at heart.”
BILLS AND MONEY
A year ago, organic farmer Hannah Brilliant hardly ever fielded questions from customers about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
This year, everyone is asking.
“I had to take some time (to) learn a little myself so I could try to answer their questions,” said Brilliant, who runs an organic vegetable farm with her boyfriend in Pittsfield and has a regular table at the Wednesday farmers market in Monument Square in Portland.
The current debate over labeling of genetically modified foods has reached nearly 30 states, including Maine, but it has yet to spur a federal law. It is also being aggressively challenged.
In November, voters in California rejected a ballot initiative similar to the bill that just passed in Maine. Food and chemical giants, led by Monsanto and DuPont, spent more than $46 million to defeat it, compared to about $9 million spent by supporters. The companies persuaded voters to reject the bill by arguing that it was deceptive, overly bureaucratic and full of special interest exemptions.
The spending was not nearly that high in Maine, but those same companies lobbying against labeling bills also outspent supporters of the bills here. Companies have also threatened to sue states that enact food labeling laws. The industry says labeling misleads consumers into believing that foods with bioengineered ingredients are less safe or less healthy than other foods.
Robert Tardy of Palmyra, a former Democratic lawmaker and a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Association, which represents companies like Monsanto, contends that the motive behind the GMO-labeling bill is not transparency.
“It’s a coordinated effort to boost sales of organic products,” he said.
But Heather Spalding, interim executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, said people’s interest in what’s in their food and other products is a good thing. It’s about choice.
“There is a growing awareness about the many untested and unregulated chemicals and ingredients that are in so many everyday products,” she said. “But the approach needs to be less fear-mongering and more pushing for safe alternatives. And there are safer alternatives.”
Today, the transparency debate is centered on GMOs, but product labeling has been around for a long time. What has increased is the amount of information available.
Among the first legislative actions to give people more information about what they were buying was the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1965, which required that all consumer products involved in interstate commerce be “honestly and informatively labeled.”
In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which said all packaged food must have basic nutritional information listed.
In 2004, a federal law was passed to aid consumers suffering from severe allergies. Now all products that contain peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts or wheat must be labeled accordingly.
In 2008, after six years of legal challenges, a federal provision was passed that requires retailers to provide country of origin labels for beef, pork and lamb.
Long before federal regulations are passed, these types of debates usually start at the state level.
WHAT’S IN A LABEL
There is a risk in going too far, according to Mark Heidmann, who owns Maple Springs Farm in Harrison. He said people want to trust certain labels, but don’t always know what the label actually means.
“I don’t think people have an understanding of what ‘genetically modified’ means, but they know they don’t like it,” he said.
Heidmann, for instance, is not a certified organic farmer, but he said his growing practices are just as natural as those used by other farmers. And he’s happy to explain his process to customers, if they are willing to listen. But some just look for the organic label and if it’s not there, they move on.
There is also a gap between interest and action in consumption, according to Eric Whan, sustainability director at GlobeScan, a public opinion research firm that conducted a recent study of consumer habits. The study found that 86 percent of consumers worldwide say transparency in food ingredients is important, but only 57 percent regularly check the list of ingredients before purchasing.
There are already plenty of rules about how certain foods can be labeled. The adjective “organic,” for instance, can be used only on products that are certified by the USDA. The same is true of “fair trade,” which refers to manufacturers that adhere to certain criteria aimed at creating equity.
The term “cage-free,” on the other hand, has no legal or regulatory definition. Neither do the phrases “no additives” or “locally grown.”
But there is ambiguity, too. The word “natural” is defined by the USDA as containing no artificial ingredients and minimal processing, but its definition is broad enough that it could include livestock that were raised in slaughterhouses and fed antibiotic growth hormones.
As for GMOs, companies can certainly label their products as “non-GMO.” There is just no requirement that they do so.
Many manufacturers and producers are voluntarily releasing such information, in some cases as a marketing tactic. Even before the recent FDA decision on gluten-free labeling, many food companies were labeling those products to meet increasing consumer demand.
Heather McCready, regional spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said her company has pledged to label everything in its stores to indicate whether it is GMO by 2018, whether or not laws require it.
Other companies have taken a proactive approach in telling customers about their products.
Portland-based Oakhurst Dairy was the first milk producer to include a disclaimer on its labels that said it used no artificial growth hormones, even though there was no law requiring disclosure. There still isn’t.
Bill Bennett, chairman of the board of directors for Oakhurst, said the company first persuaded its dairy farmers to sign a no artificial growth hormones pledge back in 1994. The labels followed shortly thereafter.
“We felt an obligation to tell customers not just what was in our products, but what was not,” Bennett said. “In the end, the customer rules.”
After Oakhurst began including its disclaimer, competitors followed suit.
Belliveau said companies that fight to keep certain information private are not the only problem. Some companies are seizing on the public’s appetite for certain buzzwords like “local” or “natural” by making false or misleading claims. It’s commonly referred to as green-washing.
“Consumers have to be savvy about the information that’s presented to them,” he said.
THE PUSH FOR TRANSPARENCY
In many cases, consumers’ push for increased information is born out of a specific event.
Meat recalls, for instance, have prompted people to be more judicious about their choices and convinced lawmakers to call for transparency.
Recent revelations that some meat producers use an ingredient known as lean, finely textured beef, or pink slime, prompted the USDA to require labeling. It also has led to decreased production of that type of meat.
Salmonella outbreaks have alerted consumers to the fact that most commercial eggs sold in the U.S. come from only a handful of companies.
A 2011 investigation by The Boston Globe revealed widespread mislabeling of fish in markets and restaurants and led to legislation aimed at curbing the problem.
Media coverage of calories and fat content in certain restaurant dishes has prompted customers to ask for nutritional information. Some restaurant chains are voluntarily posting it on websites. Others are less forthcoming.
The push for transparency doesn’t end there.
More and more, people check for certain chemicals in cleaning products, lotions and hand sanitizers. Parabens, a series of chemicals used in many cosmetic products, have been linked to breast cancer. Triclosan, a common antibacterial agent, also is being studied as a possible carcinogen.
The federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 requires the full disclosure to the public of all entities or organizations receiving federal funds.
In 2010, a federal law kicked in requiring colleges not only to be more transparent about their tuition and room and board costs, but also to give reasonable estimates for fees, books and personal expenses.
Many advocacy groups have long called for transparency in the manufacturing of clothing, specifically the disclosure of where certain items are made.
The collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh in April that killed 800 workers led to a concerted push by advocates and consumers for retailers, many of whom contract with manufacturers in Third World countries, to ensure safer working conditions and fair wages.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes retail giants such as Walmart, Gap and J.C. Penney, launched in 2011 to create industry standards for labor practices. The information gathered by the coalition is used internally, but the group is also considering giving customers access to some of the information.
However, even that may not give consumers the entire picture. While a sweater may be labeled as being made in the U.S., the wool that it’s made from could be from another country.
Another major challenge for consumers is the continued consolidation of brands. Larger food companies have taken over smaller brands that have built a loyal following in the natural foods marketplace.
Dean Foods quietly switched from organic soybeans to conventional soybeans after it purchased Silk soy milk in 2002. On its label, “organic” became “natural.” Some customers were outraged, according to past media coverage, but sales did not suffer.
Kashi and Bear Naked, which make granolas, are both now owned by Kellogg’s, and have come under fire for using genetically modified ingredients.
As the push for more transparency increases, Dhar, the Yale professor who studies consumer trends, says companies likely will continue meeting the demands of their customers, just like they have always done.
“I think if your core promise of the brand is authenticity, it is important to be transparent,” he said. “However, if you are a run-of-the-mill offering, there isn’t an expectation that everything is relevant to the consumer.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: