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Tiny type and lots of labels - At what cost and what effectiveness?

By Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq.
web posted November 10, 2003

The text a reader finds in the print media, a viewer sees and hears on television or a listener hears on radio suggest functional illiteracy - or maybe just plain linguistic laziness - may be increasing exponentially. This is so, notwithstanding huge numbers of college and post-graduate degrees seemingly, like rain, falling upon the qualified and the unqualified.

The National Education Association and other promote-the-student-and-student-diversity-at-any-cost folks, of course, will disagree that functional illiteracy is increasing. However, nobody, however literate, if only nominally observant, can fail to see that the profusion of labels is unprecedented. Buy, rent or just gaze at anything that is packaged and much that isn't packaged: there are labels, disclaimers, instructions, explanations, abjurations of liability, whatever one terms them, in amazing profusion and often the tiniest of type.

The motivation for most of these messages naturally is self-serving: the manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer is attempting to comply with some governmental - usually federal - regulation and/or to avoid litigation. After all, if one does something patently nonsensical, one becomes a victim and victims are entitled to compensation from government (translate: from taxpayers), from a corporation, from an insurance company or, surely, from some place. Forget discretion, prudence, common sense: if it were not my fault, or at least not mostly my fault, I'm a victim; as a victim, I'm entitled to compensation, preferably of the big bucks kind (if litigated, after the "trial lawyers" and costs take up to 65 per cent of the pot). Labeling, therefore, more and more reflects attempts at self-protection by those who label.

The latest in labeling, sponsored by otherwise mostly sensible agricultural interests, is about to achieve a new measure of labeling absurdity. While many, probably most, Members of Congress were concentrating on other - one hopes more important - issues, certain agricultural interests sneaked through Congress as part of the 2002 Farm Bill a new labeling law. It requires country-of-origin labeling on a variety of commodities, such as meat, fresh fruit, frozen fruit, and vegetables. The Department of Agriculture, known as the "USDA" to farmers and others in the agricultural chain, through its Agricultural Marketing Service, is originating a rulemaking. After Office of Management and Budget review, USDA will publish proposed rules in The Federal Register. In or about September 2004 those rules will become law.

Have you always wanted to know whether the lamb you might buy came from Colorado or New Zealand? A mushroom from Pennsylvania or Taiwan? A tomato from Florida or Mexico? A sardine from Norwegian Atlantic waters or Portuguese Atlantic waters? Sugar from Hawaii or Haiti? An olive from Greece or Spain? Olive oil from Italy or Spain? Mozzarella from Wisconsin or Italy? Ricotta from Minnesota or Italy?

Of course, if the marketers think country-of-origin designation helps sell, you already have the answer - in simple language, large type and prominent placement.

Thanks to Big Government and those lobbyists who know how to manipulate it, as long as you want to, and can, read tiny type, in due course you will know where all your food, and presumably all the ingredients within mixed foods, originated. (Whether or not it's country-of-origin labeled, import inspection procedures are identical.)

Don't worry about cost. Estimates vary up to $3.9 billion for the first year of compliance, according The Wall Street Journal. Producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers will have no choice but to attempt to pass that cost on to consumers. People such as Senator Tim Johnson, the lesser publicized South Dakota liberal Democrat, staunchly support country-of-origin labeling and are sure the cost will be less. Let's assume they are correct. Perhaps that cost will be only one or two billion dollars. If you can find the label, put on your specs and squint at it. After all, your taxes will hide the cost of the bureaucrats' administration of the labeling, your grocery bill will hide the cost of the labeling.

Might you eat out to escape an inundation of grocery store labeling?

If these latest USDA labeling requirements aren't sufficient to test your eyeballs and run up your bills, another set looms upon the near horizon. The Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") is considering regulations to force restaurateurs (and presumably fast foods and carry-outs) to enliven their menus with lots of labels about ingredients and all the other data obese people want to ignore. FDA evidently is insufficiently busy with the myriad of problems involving unlawful drugs, fake drugs and foreign who-knows-what's-inside drugs.

One might think the ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians were behind our seemingly limitless labeling ludicrousness. They are not guilty. Look to the bureaucrats, the usual bevy of do-gooders, maybe a few confused farmers and, of course, those innocents trying to protect themselves from the litigious "trial lawyers."

So let's squint, study, attempt to decipher the ever expanding tiny-print gobbledygook. If we can afford the time and hidden cost, we may save our common sense for use upon some other occasion if Big Government doesn't again preempt our opportunity.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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