EPA Is Getting Into Labels

The agency best known for its environmental regulations is trying to become consumer-friendly.

EPA issued new labels for insect repellent Wednesday, the latest agency attempt to create consumer-friendly standards for products.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 7, 2013, 9:46 a.m.

You wouldn’t buy sun­screen without first check­ing the SPF la­bel. You prob­ably even check the nu­tri­tion facts on your food from time to time. And soon, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency hopes, con­sumers will come to ex­pect sim­il­ar la­bels on used cars, in­sect re­pel­lents, and a host of oth­er products.

“It is very much a con­cer­ted ef­fort on the agency’s part,” said Jim Jones, who helped design EPA’s in­sect re­pel­lent la­bels that de­b­uted Wed­nes­day. “We’re really try­ing to fig­ure out where we can provide in­form­a­tion in a man­ner that is eas­ily ac­cess­ible to the av­er­age con­sumer and trust­ing that the Amer­ic­an pub­lic makes in­formed de­cisions.”

The agency is seek­ing pub­lic feed­back on its new re­pel­lent la­bels, which tell con­sumers if a product keeps away mos­qui­toes or ticks, and for how long. That in­form­a­tion isn’t new, Jones said, but pre­vi­ous stand­ards made it in­con­sist­ently placed and “densely com­mu­nic­ated.”

At­tempts to stand­ard­ize and sim­pli­fy product in­form­a­tion, EPA ad­mits, are modeled after the pre­ced­ent set by the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We used the SPF mod­el,” Jones said of the latest la­bel. In the design stage, EPA sought the ad­vice of the FDA, which also has been re­quir­ing nu­tri­tion la­bels on pack­aged foods since 1990. “The co­ordin­a­tion with FDA was largely about learn­ing from their ex­per­i­ence,” Jones said. “What works with con­sumers? What doesn’t work?”

In­sect re­pel­lent isn’t EPA’s first for­ay in­to stand­ard­ized product la­beling. Earli­er this year, the agency ex­pan­ded its fuel-mileage stick­ers to in­clude used cars. Al­though the stick­ers’ ad­jus­ted stand­ards dropped mileage es­tim­ates from ori­gin­al claims, many in the car-sales in­dustry lauded their uni­form­ity and trans­par­ency. “Any­body who’s selling a car, deal­er­ships es­pe­cially, are go­ing to be look­ing for any edge they can get,” Auto­Trader.com site ed­it­or Bri­an Moody told Na­tion­al Journ­al last month. “What bet­ter way to get that edge than an of­fi­cial stick­er from the gov­ern­ment?”

Con­sumer ad­voc­ates also wel­come the ex­pan­sion of gov­ern­ment-stand­ard la­bels. “It’s help­ful for the gov­ern­ment to set some sort of stand­ard so that all products are meet­ing that,” said the Con­sumer Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica’s Chris Waldrop. “You want to make sure that the la­bel is something con­sumers can use and un­der­stand.” Based on past suc­cess stor­ies, Waldrop said, it won’t take long for oth­er la­bels to catch on. “Once [nu­tri­tion la­beling] was on the pack­age, con­sumers star­ted us­ing it and find­ing it use­ful,” he said.

So far, feed­back has been pos­it­ive on the new re­pel­lent la­bel, Jones said. Fo­cus groups that tested the la­bel found it to be help­ful, and man­u­fac­tur­ers have mostly wel­comed the in­creased clar­ity.

So what’s next on EPA’s la­bel cam­paign? Jones has his eye on the Design for the En­vir­on­ment pro­gram, which des­ig­nates products that are en­vir­on­ment­ally safe. While its aims are good, “that la­bel doesn’t really res­on­ate,” Jones said. “We’re go­ing to re­design that la­bel … in a way that it’s really clear to the con­sumer what we’re try­ing to con­vey to them.”

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