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Xaq Frohlich, PhD, Associate Professor of History at Auburn University
A history of U.S. food labeling policies and “informational turn” in food politics, and a critical look at debates in recent decades over labeling GMOs, “organic”, and other food risks and alternative food movements.
In recent decades there has been a proliferation of third-party certification schemes in food markets, which consumers experienced at the supermarket through various new labels for lifestyles: organic, non-GM, dolphin-safe, carbon footprint, fair-trade, and animal-welfare approved, among others. Drawing from my forthcoming book, From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age (UC Press, 2023), this talk gives a history of this “informational turn” in food politics, starting with the U.S. FDA’s turn to nutrition labeling in the 1970s. It then situates debates in the 1990s about GMO labeling and USDA “organic,” debates that continue today, in a larger history of risk labeling and credence goods that illustrates persistent ambivalence among policymakers on the wisdom of using the food label as a tool to “empower” or “nudge” consumers on controversial subjects. While many have heralded informative labels, such as the FDA’s introduction of the Nutrition Facts panel in 1993, as a new form of hands-off, yet pro-public governance that enables healthy choices, I make the case that informative labels are also a problematic market device that unloads responsibility onto consumers, and, as is the case for the recent “bioengineered” foods label, can even work as a technology of obfuscation, rather than transparency. Through a history of the food labels in America, this talk explores the struggles of scientific, legal, and market experts to frame food, diet and risk for the average consumer.
Xaq Frohlich is an associate professor of history of technology at Auburn University. He is trained in history and STS, and his research centers on food, diet and health risks, consumer politics, and market governance. His book, From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age (UC Press, 2023), tells a biography of the food label, from the U.S. FDA’s food standards to the use of informative labels (such as Nutrition Facts) today.
GES Colloquium is jointly taught by Drs. Jen Baltzegar and Dawn Rodriguez-Ward, who you may contact with any class-specific questions. Colloquium will be held in person in the 1911 Building, room 129, and live-streamed via Zoom.