Four experts discussed food misinformation and consumer choice at a Thursday panel discussion hosted by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
The event — titled “Lies in Your Grocery Cart: How Misinformation and Disinformation Impact Food Choice” — featured Massimo Polidoro, a visiting associate at the Department of History of Science; Erica Kenney, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health; Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at the Law School; and Beatrice La Porta, a visiting scholar at the Food Law and Policy Clinic. Emily M. Broad Leib, the director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic, moderated the event.
During the event, attended by HLS affiliates in-person and virtually, the experts discussed food labeling, harmful impacts of misinformation, government regulation, and consumer choice.
Broad Leib said in an interview with The Crimson that the event aimed to foster intersectional discussion on issues in the U.S. food system across the fields of public health, psychology, and law.
She said she first became aware about the prevalence of issues in the food system through community-based work following law school.
“I got to rural Mississippi, and one of the first issues that came up was around food and local food systems and food access,” Broad Lieb said. “And I thought, ‘What an interesting, important, relevant societal issue to work on’ and grew from there to take on a whole bunch of other issues in the food system.”
During the discussion, Kenney spoke about nutrition labeling as a technique brands use to generate demand. She said it could be difficult for consumers to discern the value of health claims on packaging and marketing for everyday products in the grocery store.
Kenney also said that labeling should be considered one of many determinants of health, and one that can easily be modified in the digital age.
“Something that we can change to try to influence your decisions is this issue of marketing and labeling,” she said. “We can change how you perceive a food’s nutritional value, we can change how you perceive emotional expectancies and your preferences with that labeling.”
In a discussion about the spread of misinformation in society, Polidoro said that those who have the “most strong emotional appeal,” making them “more fearful and angry,” are particularly susceptible to misinformation around food.
“People often are very easily drawn to quick and easy solutions for complex problems, especially when it comes to health and nutrition,” he said.
In an interview following the event, La Porta stressed the importance of the interdisciplinary aspect of the clinic. In her view, the value of adding law into the conversation lies in transferring science in the abstract to policy in the concrete.
“If you’re not operating from a legal perspective, everything could remain just words,” La Porta said.
Broad Leib said the complexity of the discussion on the U.S. food system provides opportunities to “really make change” from multiple disciplines.
“We’re all grappling with these challenges. This is the kind of thing that the Harvard community and students in particular can really try to make progress on,” Broad Leib said. “We don’t have all the answers. We know that something needs to change.”