Food Ethics

, Volume 2, Issue 2–3, pp 127–137 | Cite as

The Ethics of Labeling Food Safety Risks

  • Haley Swartz
Research Article


Food producers have answered increasing consumer demand for transparency through disclosure of information on food labels. Food safety labels act as a signal to consumers that certain products may pose a risk to human health. These labels are based on developments in microbiology and/or represent a required response to foodborne illness outbreaks. However, the scope of the risk posed by product consumption, as well as who is most vulnerable to harm, varies based on the ethical reasoning underlying the presence of the label on the package. This paper applies Thompson (International Journal of Food Science and Technology 36: 833–843, 2001)‘s theory on two contrasting ethical approaches to risk communication – choice optimization and informed consent – to evaluate the four most common food safety labels in the US: i) unpasteurized juice warnings; ii) egg carton safe handling instructions; iii) consumer advisories on restaurant menus; and iv) date labeling. While the choice optimization approach dictates that food safety labels are a necessary tool to equip consumers with specific information that will promote public health (i.e., egg carton safe handling instructions), informed consent obliges producers to disclose all relevant risk information so consumers can choose one product or another based on its adherence to individual values (e.g., unpasteurized juice; undercooked animal products). This paper finds that the US food safety regime represents a blending of these two ethical foundations, leading to substantial variation in risk consumer tolerance and/or aversion. One effect of the intermingling of these two ethical approaches is choice overload among consumers for newer food safety labels (e.g., date labels). This paper concludes with a discussion of policy prioritization in the context of an increasingly crowded food label marketplace.


Food safety Risk Communication Consumers Choice Risk tolerance Risk aversion 



I would like to thank Sandra Eskin, JD for the critical feedback she provided throughout all stages of this research. I would also like to thank David McSwane and Doug Farquhar for their assistance in providing essential background information.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest0.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington DCUSA

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