Should the FDA label genetically modified ingredients? (Part 1 of 2)

Rather than post about our ongoing apartment hunt (which I am now unable to discuss without using ALL of George Carlin’s seven dirty words), here’s a paper I’ve written recently on whether or not the FDA should require genetically modified ingredients to be labeled.


Since the advent of genetically modified (GM) foods, consumers around the world have voiced their concerns about their potential health effects. Outside the United States, this opposition to GM foods has led to various restrictions and/or labeling of GM foods.

Europeans have strict labeling requirements for any GM foods sold in stores and the EU has even proposed mandatory labeling for foods that contain so much as a single ingredient with one percent genetically modified material.

In Japan, no GM crops are grown commercially, and imports of GM foods have led to widespread demonstrations. In all, more than 20 countries and the European Union have at least some form of mandatory labeling for GM foods.

However, in the United States, there are no mandatory labeling requirements in place—but that’s not to say American consumers don’t want them.

In 2008, a CBS News/New York Times poll asked American consumers if they would like to see products with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled, much like they are in Europe. An overwhelming 87% of those asked said yes.

This poll—and many others like it—have consistently shown the American public’s desire for the government to mandate the labeling of GM foods. And yet, shoppers are continually denied an opportunity to be informed about what they’re buying—and to make choices based on that information.

On the other hand, those opposed to mandatory labeling claim that since there’s no difference between GM and non-GM ingredients, requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine American labeling laws and, more importantly, shake consumer confidence in these products. Enforced labeling of GM foods labeling would be both logistically difficult and would add to the expense of the products, a cost likely to be passed along to shoppers.

If consumers really want to avoid GM ingredients, opponents claim, shoppers already have access to labels that ensure a product doesn’t contain GM ingredients. That is, they can buy from the companies that have voluntarily labeled products as not containing GM ingredients, or they can buy any products that are certified as organic under the USDA’s National Organic Program.

But is this enough? Should all products containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled?

CON: No, genetically modified foods should not carry a mandatory label.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration issued a new policy statement, declaring that “foods derived from new plant varieties, including plants developed by recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques”—that is to say, genetically modified crops—did not differ significantly from non-GM crops, and as such, products containing them do not need to be labeled. (The FDA does require a product to be labeled if the modified ingredient could be a potential allergen, or if the genetic modification significantly changes the nutritional properties of the food.)

Now, nearly 20 years later, the most common genetically modified American food crops are soybean, corn, and canola. Because many processed food products contain soybean and/or corn ingredients (such as high fructose corn syrup and soy protein), it’s estimated that up to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores today include at least one GM ingredient.

If these foods were required to carry a label declaring them to be genetically modified after so many years of purchase and consumption by the public, it could only wrongly imply that GM foods have suddenly become somehow unsafe for consumption.

Even if the public could come to understand there are no significant differences between GM and non-GM ingredients, there is the matter of cost. More than just the cost of redesigning and reprinting the colorful packages foods come in, an accurate labeling system would require the creation of extensive identification, tracking, and/or testing systems. These systems would ensure that GM crops remain separated from non-GM crops: from the farmer’s field, on to the grain processor, the food manufacturer, and finally the retailer.

Estimates vary, but this new system could add anywhere from a few dollars per person or add as much as an additional 10 percent on to a household’s grocery bill annually. To require labeling of GM foods to fulfill the desires of some consumers would levy a cost on all consumers.

There is the issue of consumer choice. Those in favor of labeling genetically modified ingredients claim that it is in the public’s best interest to be able to have a choice between GM and non-GM foods, that this will bring greater choice for shoppers as they browse their local supermarkets. In practice, however, this theory of “more choice for all” has not come to pass.

In the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand retailers have almost entirely eliminated genetically modified products from their shelves, due to a perceived consumer aversion to GM products.

Rather than more choice for all, those shoppers who have no issue with genetically modified foods could find their favorite foods reformulated, repriced, or even removed from production entirely.

Consumers who wish to avoid genetically modified foods already have plenty of options to buy foods made without GM ingredients. First, there is the the USDA’s National Organic Program. This ensures that any product carrying the “Organic” label must be free from genetically modified ingredients.

There are a number of consumer organizations dedicated to helping consumers avoid products with GM ingredients. At least one organization, The Non-GMO Project, has gone as far as creating an iPhone application to act as a shopping guide—it lists and categorizes over 150 brands in more than 20 different categories that have chosen to exclude GM ingredients.

Even some supermarket chains have taken it upon themselves to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from their private labels (or “store brand”) products—Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s private label products are each entirely sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients.

With so many options available to those shoppers who wish to avoid genetically modified crops—foods which the FDA says are indistinguishable from non-GM crops—why then should there be any mandatory labeling of GM ingredients? A law such requiring such labels would only confuse the public, raise prices in the supermarket, and lead to fewer food choices for all.

In the interests of space (and, let’s face it, the average attention span), I’ll post the benefits of labeling GM ingredients and my conclusion tomorrow.


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