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Linking Food Prices, Food Taxes and Food Labels

Linking Food Prices, Food Taxes and Food Labels

These three issues have more in common than you might think — more than just headlines in the consumer press.

The price of our food and beverages will go up. Junk food taxes will not solve our obesity problem. Front-of-package labels will not change shoppers’ selections.

What these three issues have most in common is confusion.

Let’s not confuse understanding with being time-starved. Walking up and down the aisles of a 40,000-square-foot store, filling a shopping cart and checking out in 45 minutes or less in order to make the soccer game before making dinner takes its toll. And unfortunately, the jam-packed schedules that many people are living these days do not allow for thoughtful contemplation when it comes to food choices. It’s more like getting a tasty meal together for the family in the least amount of time possible, one where everyone will clean their plates and having done all that for the lowest cost possible.

As prices go up, supermarkets are faced with a real problem. When the recession first hit, many stores ran ads promising to lower prices — customers shopped around and found new places to buy their foods. Retailers have hesitated to raise costs and in some cases have absorbed price increases or forced manufacturers to hold prices stable. This strategy is fragile at best, and will not stand the test too much longer. We must make it a priority to clearly explain the connection between weather conditions, the impact of natural disasters, declining natural resources, fuel and how they all impact agriculture and costs.

We love sugar, fat and salt. Our taste buds have been trained over the past few decades to desire and enjoy foods that contain them. Putting a tax on these so-called junk foods (and as some suggest using the taxes to lower the prices of healthier foods) will not work. All that happens is new tax revenue that is likely to be diverted to fund other programs rather than lowering the cost of healthier offerings, the creation of an underground black market for non-taxed junk foods and most likely even more offshore counterfeiting of brand names. The only solution, which will take decades, is to retrain our taste buds (probably too late for those 76 million Baby Boomers) — which has already started with many major companies reformulating their recipes lowering their sugar and sodium content.

And then there are those front-of-package labels schemes. It appears to me that everything that one needs in order to make an intelligent food choice is already on the package — in the Nutritional Facts and ingredient listings. Have we really convinced ourselves that shoppers are too lazy (or stupid) to turn the package around to read these? The solution is in the smartphone in the palm of our hand where we will enter the nutritional profile we desire, and as we use the device to read the bar codes to checkout it will remind us if we have selected a product that does not meet our criteria.

Today’s world is much different. Our shoppers use search and social networking tools; they ask questions and do not simply accept what we tell them.

Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and