Vermont Law School Launches New Website To Demystify Food Labels


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Vermont Law School in South Royalton on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Editor’s Note: This Claire Potter story first appeared in the Valley News on June 27.

SOUTH ROYALTON – A Vermont Law School program focused on food and agriculture has launched a new and improved website to help consumers decode the complex food labels they have to scan every time they visit the grocery store.

Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at VLS, launched the Labels Unwrapped website, on labelsunwrapped.org, after teaching a course on food regulation and policy.

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

It was then that she decided to start a project that would help consumers understand food labels.

Beyranevand worked with law school and Dartmouth College students to launch the first version of the website in 2015. Law school students took the initiative to revamp the site about a year and a half ago. with funding from the USDA National Agricultural Library. Beyranevand said they were focusing on making the website “more mainstream and all-people-oriented.”

In the new version, shoppers can go to the website to make quick decisions when faced with shelves full of options in the store. They can navigate to major food groups, such as dairy, fruits and vegetables, or protein, then select common claims and certifications to read short summaries that explain what they really mean.

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

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

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

For example, she said that phrases like “gluten-free” and “low-fat” are heavily regulated, while claims that a product is “healthy” or “natural” are not. She explained that restrictions on free speech 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 complex laws surrounding the regulation of food labeling.

Beyranevand said law school students will also update the website with in-depth “briefing notes” on hot topics ranging from bioengineered food labels to questions about the human character of the body. USDA Organic Farming. She said advocates 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 South Royalton Law School, got involved in the project from the moment she arrived at VLS last summer. She’s an expert in the field, but much of the research she’s done for the site has surprised her again.

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

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

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

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