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Vermont Law School launches new website to demystify food labels

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2021 7:06:48 PM
Modified: 6/27/2021 7:06:50 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — A Vermont Law School program focusing on food and agriculture has launched a new and improved website to help consumers decode the complex food labels that they have to parse on every trip to the grocery store.

Laurie Beyranevand, the director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at VLS, started the Labels Unwrapped website, at labelsunwrapped.org, after she taught a class on food regulation and policy.

Her students thought that it was “crazy that you need to take a law school class to understand these (food) labels.”

That was when she decided to start a project that would help consumers understand food labels.

Beyranevand worked with students at the law school and Dartmouth College to launch the first version of the website in 2015. Law school students took the lead on revamping the site about a year and a half ago with funding from the USDA National Agricultural Library. Beyranevand said that they focused on making the website “more consumer and everyone-focused.”

Under the new version, buyers can pull up the website to make quick decisions when they are facing shelves full of options at the store. They can navigate to the major food groups, such as dairy, produce, or protein, and then select common claims and certifications to read brief summaries that break down what they really mean.

There, they could find that the USDA no longer pre-approves the producers who claim that their meat is “naturally raised,” or that the label “all-natural” does not guarantee anything about raising conditions.

The new website also includes information on plant-based proteins and dietary supplements.

Beyranevand said that “the most surprising thing” she found when she started researching food labels was that “there are some statements on labels that are very heavily regulated and some are not regulated at all, and the average consumer has no knowledge of the distinction.”

For example, she said that phrases such as “gluten free” and “low fat” are heavily regulated, whereas claims that a product is “healthy” or “natural” are not. She explained that free speech restrictions often prevent the federal Food and Drug Administration from enforcing its right to prevent manufacturers from making misleading claims about their products. The website breaks down the complicated laws around food label regulation.

Beyranevand said that students at the law school also will be updating the website with in-depth “issue briefs” on timely topics ranging from the labels on bio-engineered food to questions about just how humane USDA organic agriculture is. She said that advocates who are trying to “push the needle on food labeling” will be able to rely on the website for up-to-date information on pressing controversies.

Cydnee Bence, a fellow at the South Royalton law school, got involved with the project as soon as she arrived at VLS last summer. She is an expert in the field, but much of the research she did for the site still surprised her.

“I was under the impression that if something is labeled non-dairy then it didn’t have cow’s milk in it,” Bence said.

However, according to FDA regulations, producers can label their products “non-dairy” even if it has products made from cow’s milk in it so long as they include a parenthetical in the ingredient list clarifying that the product contains a milk derivative. She also said that “there’s a lot of wiggle room” when it comes to labeling around the humane treatment of animals.

“I had the time to look at all of these with a computer and it still took hours,” she said. “I can’t imagine trying to make that decision in minutes based on the label.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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