August 4, 2013

What do Mainers hunger for? More product details

It's a no-brainer, right? Just tell us what's in our food and where our clothes are made. But some manufacturers say: Not so fast.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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20130724_FoodLabels
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Hannah Brilliant, left, answers questions about her produce from Limington resident Michelle Twomey at the farmers market in Monument Square last month. Brilliant, who runs an organic vegetable farm in Pittsfield, says she is fielding many more questions from consumers this year about genetically modified organisms.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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A label inside a cardigan sweater sold by a U.S. retailer informs consumers that the garment was made in Bangladesh.

Amelia Kunhardt/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Mark Heidmann, who owns Maple Springs Farm in Harrison, says: “I don’t think people have an understanding of what ‘genetically modified’ means, but they know they don’t like it.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Barbara Gulino of Whole Foods in Portland holds some of the hundreds of products with labels indicating they’re non-genetically modified, certified organic or locally produced.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Prominent labels indicate that these bunches of cilantro from Freedom Farm are certified organic, something many produce shoppers desire.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer



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Today's poll: Product labeling

How much do you care about “consumer transparency” in product labeling?

A lot

Somewhat

Not very much

View Results