The Strange Case of Grocery Labels
Exploratio Legalitas Ɪ
Introduction: When Naming Conventions and Regulations Collide:
Purity in food and drink products became a topic of national conversation in the wake of Upton Sinclair’s text The Jungle1. The book described the sorts of practices in factory production of grocery store goods, and can be directly linked to the passing of legislation such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This mandated purity standards for grocery products, creating a paradigm of legally backed naming conventions. This raises the question, what does it mean for a product to truly be “ham”, or “milk”, or “bread”?
An Ontology of Milk:
A new series of fronts have recently opened up in the battle over name regulations. Confrontations over the definition of butter, mayonnaise, wings, milk, and burgers have enraged lobbyists and grocery producers alike. These conflicts tend to take a similar shape. One camp is typically made up of a coalition of mainstream farmers, politicians (ones who’s districts have high farmer populations), and hired lobbyists. The other camp is typically composed of producers who are trying to break into established markets by creating alternative products. These products are oftentimes vegetarian or vegan, and sometimes are designed to fit a market niche for ethical food/drink. These camps clash both in the court of law and the court of public opinion. While the stakes are rather low for most citizens, a significant amount of profit can ride on the outcome. At core, the battle is fought over marketing aesthetics. If a producer creates an alternative product, for example a vegetarian burger-style patty, they would surely want to tap into the cultural significance and familiarity of the closest product. Narratives such as “It’s Sunday, lets throw some burgers on the barbecue” are cultural touchstones. A vegetarian burger nudging into that space could mean the difference between profit and bankruptcy.
Evidence cited for each claim varies somewhat depending on the specific product at play, however there are some commonalities. Mainstream farmers and their allies often appeal to ideas of clarity in order to justify their attempts at legally restricting the names of competition. For example, one could say “Everyone would think that milk is what comes out of a lactating animals nipple, so trying to frame an almond beverage as being milk is deceptive”. One could also say “Everyone would think that burgers are made of animal meat, and so meat substitutes can’t be called burgers or else they would trick people”. In actuality, the surveys I have seen have shown that very few people are in any way deceived by alternative products taking on names such as “burger” or “milk”. It consistently says the origin of the food/drink right in the name, especially if it is not composed of what one would often expect. Examples include “Oat Milk” and “Beyond Burger: plant based patties”.
The Social Construction and Evolution of Terms:
One could argue that lobbying and profit are the basis for these current naming regulation. However, that is only an explanation of the motivation behind the fights, and not an explanation of the impacts. The decisions being made create prescriptive schemas for referring to products. As a result, legislators and FDA bureaucrats are in essence performing ontological designations2. They are purporting to determine the essence of “Milk”, “Burgers”, “Mayo” etc. From a legal perspective, it isn’t about which definition is most accurate or correct, it is about which definition is enforced using powers of the state, powers of producers, and powers of the people. However, this ontological game plays out at different levels, in different places, among different people. The construction of the term “Milk” or “Burger” is a series of processes, drawing from popular culture, law, and interpersonal communication. Trying to find a singular essence for these terms seems like an attempt doomed from the start. As Wittgenstein noted when he described family resemblances, many words have partially overlapping definitions. This variance and flux allows language to evolve and grow as we do.
While originally intended to promote workers rights and communism by highlighting the inhumane factory conditions of the era, the text’s main impact was to raise awareness of the dangers of consuming shoddy, impure, toxic, and doctored products.
Of course, these schemas can be (and at times are) resisted by consumers and broader society. This results in contested terms, as different groups fight over the “true” (aka legal) meaning.