Too much emphasis is placed on the role of labels

Luigi Caricato

Labels can be helpful, because they provide useful and important information, but they are not as fondamental as we are often led to believe. Too much emphasis is placed on the almost salvific role of labels in protecting the consumers, but it is time to stop endorsing such an ontologically mistaken idea, which is obviously too naïf and ridiculous to be true.

Labels are not some present-day knights in shining armour, ready to protect whoever, scouring the shelves of grocery stores or supermarkets, is trying to decide what oil to purchase. At most, they can only ensure retroactive protection. We should always bear this in mind, and therefore, whoever persists in emphasizing the importance of labels in consumer protection is not only fooling him- or herself but also, and more importantly, the potential purchasers.

When inspectors take bottles of oil from the retailers’ to analyse their content, they can only attest the true nature and quality of the oil (but obviously, this is true for any type of food or beverage) after performing the assays in their laboratories, and not while they are examining the labels.

I cannot stress it often enough: only after the samples have been analysed, is it possible to verify that what is stated on the label truly corresponds with the content of the bottle up for sale.

The most inspectors can do while still in the store is examine the label to check that it conforms with the law, and if not, act accordingly. By law, if the content is not that declared on the label, the producer can be fined and even barred from working in the sector.

If the label contains all the information requested by law, it can only serve as a guideline for the consumers, but cannot protect them immediately, i.e. when they are making the purchase.
The fact that labels only possess a partial, though by no means negligible effectiveness should always be kept in mind. Hence, repetita iuvant: the emphasis put on labels is completely out of place.

“Check the label, examine it thoroughly” is certainly sound advice, but only because by doing so the consumers can have a clearer idea of what they are about to buy. The only way we can assess the quality of what we purchase is by tasting it. If however we are incapable of judging an oil through our senses, the label is of little avail.

Only our “sensory lab” can help us. By comparing a series of olive oils, we can establish our standards. Even the most ignorant cannot fail to discern the good oils from the bad ones. An olive oil endowed with a fresh perfume, a wide array of pleasant, clean scents, is always better than one whose smell is rather unpleasant. This is doubtlessly a very basic approach, but it is quite effective.
The only drawback is that it requires the sampling of a certain number of oils, but on the other hand, if price is our only parameter, we risk choosing something that is only apparently more convenient. Even if we are not aware of the proper tasting techniques, we can however discern the quality level of an olive oil. The label? Its importance is overestimated. By excessively emphasising its role we are neither being accurate nor serving the consumer’s interests.

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