What if before you saw the brand name or the colorful mascot or imagery that producers print on their boxes, bags and labels on the grocery store shelves, you saw the process it took to get there first?
Or, not quite so extreme, what if more companies showed you the process of their food, right on the package? I can imagine it having at least two big benefits right away: 1) it would help us understand our food better, including the processes used in making it, the places it's traveled, the people involved, and how far it is from the farm to our plates; and 2) it would encourage producers to either make sure that process is good and natural, or to shorten or improve that process to make foods closer to what consumers really want.
Awareness and honesty about where our foods come from is something I think we all agree we'd like more of and that we think would benefit people all over the world. Right now, many of us feel at the mercy of producers because they keep their processes hidden from us or it's too much effort to do our own research. But if we have the choice (and the price is right), many of us would choose food products that are as close to natural as possible. We'll all still buy some foods that are nearly worthless nutritionally because we like them, but we could all be helped by being better informed.
Knowing more about our food and its production could:
- Encourage healthier food choices
- Combat obesity and poor nutrition in any demographic
- Discourage bad practices among producers
- Reward producers already producing foods in agreeable ways
- Inform producers about what processes customers want and don't want in their foods—like long or short shipping distances, excessive processing, organic or non-organic, natural or artificial ingredients
It would help consumers create a better balance in a two-way conversation between producers and consumers.
So could a process label look like? Some initial considerations would be to try to make as much information fit into as few elements as possible. Simple, iconic images would be preferred, using text only when necessary and as a modifier, like to name the city, state or country an ingredient came from or was processed through. The size would vary depending on the producer's tastes.
Realistically, I could see this starting through local farmers and food producers whose processes involve very few steps. It would help them communicate those benefits of their products and would be a badge of pride. The more steps a food product goes through, the more complicated any explanation will be--graphic or no--so for some products, it may not make much sense, but I think the idea is still worth them trying to pursue in a better format for them if this doesn't fit.
It will be voluntary and positive for some, negative and avoided by others who think or know that seeing their process could damage customers' perception of their product. But hopefully with a critical mass of producers adopting this idea, more producers will be pressured to add it to their packaging because customers will expect it or wonder what they have to hide.
I'm sure a thing like this couldn't have only rosy consequences--people may react very strongly at first against foods that have long processes even if they eventually get used to the fact that some of the foods they like and buy simply have to come from processes that are less than healthy. But I think the overall influence would be very positive, taking a big step toward more consumer awareness, and bridging the gap between consumers and producers.
I can imagine labels like this used to educate, put as stickers onto products. They could be used by individuals in a guerilla tactics to call out products they think use bad practices or to help promote products they really believe in, like locally and organically grown produce. But in their mature form, I hope they could be adopted by food producers and sellers legitimately.
Additional steps could include what goes into the growing of potatoes, for example--amount of water and fertilizer used, fuel used or CO2 produced by farming machinery, water used for washing, packaging processes, etc. And they could include information about the workers and their fair treatment. But this could easily get pretty messy. More though is needed to refine the right system and the right level of simplicity or complexity.
I like these related concepts (found after writing, but "like minds," right?):
Sina Mossayeb's "SMS: Where did this come from?" - SMS or barcode technology could definitely be used.
Maria Leznicki's "Produce with a Story" - would be great if you could track the specific piece of produce, in addition to the path a piece of produce like that usually takes.
Julie Lee's "Labeling organic and local food better with mobile devices"
Louise Wilson's "Building 'Transparency' App" - love all the app ideas, but what about options that can rely less on technology that people may or may not have? Love all these thoughts.