Sunday, July 5, 2015

GMO Labeling: Mandatory or Voluntary

[Business and Politics]

Mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods has been proposed under a variety of initiatives in the US at both the federal and state levels but has not yet been implemented. Currently, US law mandates food labeling when there is a substantial difference in the nutritional or safety characteristics of a new food. The FDA does not consider the method of genetic engineering by itself to create such a difference (Google ‘substantial equivalence GMO’ to better understand this). 

Obviously, there is nothing to stop food producers that wish to voluntarily label foods produced without genetic modification.  In fact, the FDA proposed voluntary guidelines (2001) for companies that choose to label foods as to whether they do or do not contain GM ingredients.  Lastly, foods labeled USDA Organic are produced without genetic modification (though there are many other criteria needed for this designation). 

The most common GM crops on the market are soybean, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beet. Because many processed food products contain ingredients from one of these crops (e.g., soy protein or high fructose corn syrup), it is likely that a majority of processed foods in grocery stores include at least one GM crop ingredient.

Pros and Cons of Mandatory Labeling
There are many arguments both for and against the mandatory labeling of GM foods.  Here is a list of each:

Arguments Made for Mandatory Labeling
  • Consumers have a right to know what is in their food, especially concerning ingredients for which there may be health and environmental concerns. Beyond just the concerns directly related to GM foods, GM Crops are often grown in conjunction with the intense application of agrochemicals in the form of fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Mandatory labeling will allow consumers to identify the types of food products that they wish to avoid.
  • For religious, philosophical or ethical reasons, some consumers may want to avoid eating certain products that may be introduced by GM methods.
  • Voluntary labeling has not been sufficient for informing consumers about the presence of GM ingredients.
  • Surveys indicate that a majority of American consumers support mandatory labeling.
  • At least 64 countries have established some form of mandatory labeling.  Outside the US, there is wide agreement that GMO foods are different from conventionally bred foods, and that all genetically engineered foods are required to go through safety assessments, prior to approval for commercial use. This agreement was established by the Codex Alimenatarius Commission, an international organization jointly established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, to set worldwide food safety standards.

Arguments Made Against Mandatory Labeling
  • Labels on GM foods may imply a warning about health effects, however, no verifiable differences in health effects between GM and conventional foods have been detected.
  • If a nutritional difference or allergenic characteristic were found in a GM food, current FDA regulations already require a label to that effect.
  • Costs associated with labeling of GM foods would be passed on to most consumers in order to fulfill the desires of some consumers.
  • Consumers who want to buy non-GM food already have options: to purchase verified non-GM foods or certified organic foods.
  • Experience with mandatory labeling in the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand has not resulted in greater consumer choice. Rather, retailers have eliminated GM products from their shelves due to perceived consumer aversion to GM products.
  • The food system infrastructure (storage, processing, and transportation facilities) in this country could not currently accommodate the need for segregation of GM and non-GM products.

What Should We Do?
It would be a real mess if we leave this to be decided uniquely, state by state (bill preempting state laws on GMO labeling).  That said, It may be a little too soon to mandate GM labeling unilaterally at the Federal level. And where would this labeling mandate end; animals raised on GM crops, restaurant meals containing GM ingredients; foods produced using GM enzymes, yeasts and so on?  Furthermore, I would agree that GM labeling should not make a declaration like the Surgeon General warning on a pack of cigarettes, as that would most likely be perceived negatively, which is not the point (looking for transparency, not a new bias).  Perhaps the prescribed labeling requirement could be as simple as listing ingredients and parenthetically designating those that are GM.  For example:

Ingredients: cane sugar, whole grain brown rice flour, corn starch (GM), baking powder, salt, molasses.

So, we are left with both organic and voluntary GM labeling in this interim period.  Many consumers complain that voluntary labeling has not been sufficiently applied, and therefore, the selection for the consumer that wants to make food choices accordingly, is greatly limited. However, if more consumers made choices based on voluntary GM labeling, then food producers would naturally respond. 

In the interim, until further labeling requirements is passed at the federal or state level, food producers that wish to address the needs of the consumers wanting to avoid GM foods, should follow the current FDA guidelines and then proudly declare ‘Contains no GMOs’ on their packaging.  Likewise, if a food does not declare that it contains no GMOs, and yet it contains foods that are commonly GM such as corn, soy, beets and canola, or ingredients commonly derived from these foods, then it is reasonable to assume it contains one or more GM foods.

The Bottom Line
We cannot declare an idealism based on one criteria (i.e., non-GMO), yet make our shopping choices based on a different criteria (e.g., convenience and/or price), and then expect governmental regulation to somehow make it all magically work.  We have to put our money where our mouth is. If we make our food shopping choices based on non-GMO containing foods, the entire food supply system will respond because they want to retain you as a customer.  Being knowledgeable is powerful, being vocal with that knowledge is even more powerful, and communicating with food dollars is the most powerful of all. Of course it is not a perfect world, and the giant biotech firms will try to manipulate everything from labeling to customer perception,  which is understandable when you view it from their perspective.  That is way it is ultimately our job to be informed, vocal, and to conduct ourselves in accord with our values, needs and ideals.

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