The consumer's right to know

To Label or Not to Label

by Jessica Ilyse Kurn

Labels, labels, labels. Walk down any grocery aisle and you’ll be faced with a multitude of options: USDA Organic, low-fat, grass-fed, trans fat free…the list is endless. But these symbols are not for naught. With them consumers get a choice—what to buy, and what to leave on the shelf. And still there’s a label that’s seemingly absent—something that could illuminate changes in the very DNA of what we eat—a label identifying genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

There’s an historic reason for this lack of label. In an effort to prevent consumer deception, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a label when something material has changed in a food product—material being the operative word. Material changes are those that can be discerned by taste, smell, or other senses. Say, low-sodium soup or fat-free milk. With GMOs, modifications to the foods are not so straightforward. They have occurred on the molecular level, and cannot be sensed in these ways. In the 1990s the FDA declared that GMOs were “substantially equivalent” to other foods, and so required no extra label.

According to the Center for Food Safety, up to 85 percent of corn, 91 percent of soybeans, and 95 percent of sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Therefore, nearly 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. Most of these crops have been modified so that the growing plant can withstand herbicides, produce its own insecticide, resist disease, or tolerate temperature extremes. The goal of these modifications is to produce more food at a lower cost. Once the edible, saleable product grows (say a red tomato) the FDA says it will not be materially different from any other tomato. Currently, consumer advocacy groups are pushing the FDA to change their definition of material to include genetic engineering as a legitimate modification to food.

The agribusiness sector, one of the main opponents of GMO labeling, says there is no consumer deception for the FDA to regulate. They assert that labeling would just be an added and unnecessary expense, which would ultimately be passed on to the consumer—a claim that is debated. Moreover, labeling opponents fear if GMOs were marked, people would stop buying these products. They contend that labels would mislead consumers into thinking that there are safety issues associated with consuming GMOs, when at this point there’s not much conclusive evidence to support that claim. But labeling proponents point out that there also haven’t been long-term studies proving GMOs’ safety.

Labeling proponents say that aside from unknown health risks, there also haven’t been adequate environmental impact studies testing GMOs’ effects on beneficial insects and soils. Organic farmers worry about contamination from drifting pollen, which could void their USDA Organic certification (since certified organic crops cannot contain GMOs). There’s also the problem of farmer autonomy, because genetically engineered seeds are programmed to terminate after one growing cycle, making seed-saving impossible.

But the main argument for the right-to-know campaigners is just that: People should have a right to know and decide about what they’re eating. High fructose corn syrup and aspartame are good analogies. The science about their effects on human health is not conclusive. But regardless, consumers can make their own choice whether or not to eat these products.

The freedom to choose is important to Americans. In a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll, nine out of 10 Americans said that they wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled. In a similar poll last year, MSNBC asked people if they believe that GMOs should be labeled, and an overwhelming majority (96 percent) said Yes. Consumers across the globe have already won this right. The European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and China have laws requiring labels on GMOs.

With the current trend of Congressional deadlock on controversial issues, a few U.S. states are making a go for it on their own. The biggest news is coming out of California, where a proposition requiring GMO labeling is on the November ballot. The “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” or Proposition 37, is heavily opposed by agribusiness, food manufacturers, and biotech companies. Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, and Nestlé USA are among the proposition’s many opponents. According to MapLight, a nonpartisan group that tracks political funding, these companies have spent upwards of $25 million to get their word out to California voters that there is nothing wrong with genetic engineering, and that voters should vote No on the ballot initiative. On the other side, the pro-labeling camp has raised about $2 million—mostly through individual donations—to distribute ads focusing on the consumers’ right to full disclosure of what’s in their food.

As goes California—one of the world’s largest markets—so goes the rest of the country. If Proposition 37 passes, more and more national brands will bear a GMO label. California legislation also tends to set precedent for the national agenda. Opponents predict that instead of reformulating packages, food manufacturers may just opt out of using genetically engineered products for fear of consumer backlash. So in terms of sales, the biotech industry—the manufacturer of the genetically engineered seeds—has a lot on the line. It’s no wonder industry is fighting this state proposition so intensely. We’re advised to read food labels because they illuminate information about our health and wellbeing. But when it comes to GMOs, current labels leave us in the dark. So come November, California voters will decide, and people across the country will watch, to find out if the lights will be turned on for genetically engineered foods.