CHRONIC. Label ethics illustrated by Nutri-score – Sciences et Avenir

This article is taken from the monthly journal Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche #913 of March 2023.

The battle for labels is raging in European institutions! We are talking about the “nutri-assessment” of food. Though optional, its flashy tone is a nuisance to many, especially in southern European countries where the food industry opposes the device.

How can we accept that we indiscriminately condemn all sausages, even the tender Parma ham? Or that we equate olive oil with the same stigmatization as sugary sodas? It makes no sense to correlate fats or sugars with weight: you don’t drink olive oil with a glass! It would be necessary to return them to the portion … But what to do next?

The label is meant to be summed up at the risk of subtracting too much.

On the other hand, public health consumer associations strive to provide clear information to help them make choices; the detail of the composition should show up, but being too opaque, it should be supplemented with an easily interpretable sign. It will be objected to me that the label stigmatizes; that it simplifies without nuance; that it should be accompanied by some sort of information about carbon tracking in food production or packaging recycling. For these two items, synthetic information would result in one or two additional labels, which would require multivariate evaluation. Here again, the reductionist character of the new labels can be criticized.

The label is meant to be summed up, at the risk of cutting too much and thus fading. The etymology of the word “label” refers to the old French estechier, which meant “dip, file, pierce.” That the label marks the corner, that it starts the subject and the confidence that is invested in it, is beyond doubt. And this may be somewhat unfair.

Therefore, it is necessary to protect the ethics of the label so that it is not misleading, and at the same time, that we invite the consumer to think about what is behind it, and that we give him the keys.

Jean-Gabriel Ganacha, professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, artificial intelligence researcher at LIP6 (Sorbonne University, CNRS), former president of the CNRS ethics committee. Latest published book: “Virtual Easements”, Seuil, 2022

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