Food Choice And The Omnivore’s Dilemma: an Interpretation Of U.s. Private-sector Food Labeling

Open Access
Knoppers, David Joel
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Thesis Supervisor
  • Roger Michael Downs, Honors Advisor
  • Agriculture
  • food labeling
  • political ecology
This thesis analyzes the role of voluntary, private-sector food labels in verifying and promoting environmental stewardship in the U.S. food industry. A history of global, industrialized food production is presented, contextualizing the efforts of multiple alternative food movements to create and maintain distinct methods of food production. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program is discussed as a model for a state-administered alternative food program developed and inspired by private actors and food activism worldwide. The effectiveness of USDA Organic is shown to vary over time and sector as the product of a complex, contentious, semi-democratic decision-making process involving multiple private, state, and semi-state stakeholders. Private food labeling services, as verifiers and promoters of alternative agriculture, occupy a full spectrum of quality ranging from excellent to ineffective. Label rating services such as the Ecolabel Index and Smarter Living Label Lookup represent recent efforts to authenticate meaningful labels and question less meaningful ones. Drawing upon insights from the fields of human-environmental geography, political ecology, rural sociology and environmental governance, this thesis analyzes the processes that go into the creation, promotion, verification, and continuation of private-sector food labels. It concludes by identifying predictors of success for food labels and discussing the role of an active public citizenry and state regulation in creating and improving food labels.