A Nation of Label Readers

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When my mother first immigrated to this country, she sang praises of the American supermarket: gleaming linoleum floor, neat aisles lined with brightly packaged foods, shiny refrigerator cases. Being accustomed to the steamy chaos of Southeast Asian wet markets, the modern supermarket was nirvana to her.

Today, however, she regards the supermarket less like a Garden of Eden and more like a jungle filled with obstacles and traps for the unwary. It began with the low-fat food craze. At the instruction of her doctor, aided and abetted by her children, my mother became a hunter of low-fat foods. Read the labels, we told her. Look for foods that are low-fat or non-fat, we said.
In the years that followed, our instructions grew in volume and shrillness. Beware of foods with hydrogenated fats. Never buy anything that contains high fructose corn syrup.  
Last week, the press warned the public of a class of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, widely used in every-day products ranging from pizza boxes to carpet cleaners. A top health official and 200 scientists voiced concern about PFAS and the possible risks, like thyroid disease and kidney cancer.  
But there was no government action to ban or restrict the use of PFAS. The press statement simply urged consumers to avoid using products containing these chemicals. Dutifully, I called my mother. "Don't buy anything that says PFAS on the label," I chanted.
A primary duty of government is the safety and protection of the people. In the case of PFAS and other undesirable substances like high fructose corn syrup, government action has been limited to requiring disclosure labels on product packaging. Is this sufficient protection? Or is this simply shifting the burden of responsibility over to consumers? At the very least, it has made us a nation of label readers hunting and foraging for safe foods and products.
With a Perspective, I'm Clarence Wong.

Clarence Wong lives in San Francisco and works with community health centers in the Bay Area.