I have to assume that whoever stamped the pack with the sell-by date had their mind on the job. That no-one in the factory had a cold that day. That someone ran a cloth over the equipment, and that the Fairtrade people did their research. Oh, and everyone washed their hands properly.
I also have to hope that whatever is in the sandwich is vaguely healthy. I could just read the information on the back of the packet of course but really, who has the time?
Like most shoppers, by the time I reach the checkout my basket is equal parts neccesity, desire, price-consciousness, and an awful lot of trust.
Back in the days of mud and Normans, the shopper always met the farmer who had taken his pigs to market. When the farmer handed you a bit of pig in exchange for a groat, you could give it a sniff, check it for weavils, and feel whether it weighed about as much as a groat of pig ought to weigh.
Today however, any questions we might have asked the farmer have to be anticipated in the ‘nutritional information’.
As our understanding of food has grown, the problem is no longer how little information we have - it’s how much space the label is going to take up on the packaging (there is a legal minimum font size).
Labelling regulations have to take into account the fact that most of us don’t have biochemistry degrees, and given the limited space available the information has to be one-size-fits-all. Unfortunately recommended daily intake is going to differ depending on whether you are a pregnant gymnast or a diabetic scrumhalf.
It doesn’t help that food manufacturers use the front of the box to add their own colour-coded, star-rated, percentage-based nutritional advice. The result of their efforts is usually technicolour confusion, but we still pay far more attention to what is written in large colourful lettering on the front of the box than what is written in 7.5pt Times New Roman on the back.
In recent years, food labelling has moved beyond the consumer’s very reasonable concerns about an accurate sell-by date. Food packaging has gone from telling us what the product contains, to what it doesn’t contain, to what it will do for us (or stop happening to us), to how it was or wasn’t manufactured (and by implication how its rivals’ products should be manufactured), to how much of the wholesale price went to the farmer and how much of the retail price is going to charity.
Some campaigns have been very successful. We got why our can of hairspray shouldn’t contain CFCs, and why our can of tuna shouldn’t contain traces of dolphin. Today we would prefer that our t-shirts weren’t made in Bangladeshi sweatshops, that our shopping bags are biodegradeable, and that no animals were harmed in the making of this film. We care.
The most successful campaigns embrace what we could call ‘the fluffy factor’. Dolphins, for example, are fluffy (fluffier than lambs, curiously enough). British badgers were fluffy for a while last year. Orangutans are very fluffy indeed.
The new EU food labelling regulations, which require palm oil to be individually labelled on products, has got palm oil campaigners celebrating, and some want to go further with a ‘Contains palm oil’ sticker on the front of the product as well. The problem, as with the new label on the back of the packet, is that it wouldn’t differentiate between sustainable and non-sustainable palm oil.
All this may be academic however. FLABEL, the EU body in charge of food education in Europe has timed how long the average shopper spends reading the information on the back of the packet. The result? 25-100 milliseconds.