Labeling Modified Food Comes Up for Debate
March 13, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
March 10, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va. - All over the modern world, food packages carry important information so consumers can make wiser buying choices.
Why shouldn't foods made from genetically modified crops be labeled so consumers can be fully informed? Well, knowing that a food contains something from a genetically modified crop may not tell the consumer anything useful.
Genetic modification is a tool, like a hammer or a wrench. If you were looking at a new car and saw an official label reading, "This car was built with the aid of wrenches," you'd laugh about another useless government warning.
You're actually more interested in whether the car has air bags and gets good gas mileage. The real biotech question is the content of the food, not how it's produced.
Maybe the modified genes add more Vitamin A, or eliminate an allergen. Maybe the grain or fruit from a gene-modified plant is no different at all.
The current approach of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is consistent with the idea that biotech is a tool. The FDA looks at the gene-modified product and how it differs from non-biotech foods.
If the biotech food contains a new chemical, an allergen new to that food, or a different level of certain nutrients, it must be tested for consumer safety and then labeled.
If the biotech food is the same, from the food consumer's standpoint, no special label is required. FDA Commissioner Jane Henney says adding some new bit of DNA to a plant does not necessarily raise the
same sort of intense food safety issues as a new chemical.
She notes that plants already contain DNA. She says the Bt toxin used to pest-proof current biotech varieties of corn, cotton and potatoes has no effect on humans. That's why organic farmers have used it on their crops for decades.
All of the proteins so far approved in biotech plants are nontoxic, rapidly digestible and lack the
characteristics of allergenic plant proteins. "Fortunately," says Henney, "we know a lot about the foods that do trigger allergenic reactions."
There's no question that the anti-biotech activists want labeling so that gene-modified foods can be stigmatized and boycotted. The advocates hope mandatory labeling will send a negative signal to consumers, just because of the government regulators' involvement.
When Great Britain required biotech food labeling, the food stores rushed to get biotech foods off their shelves. A popular brand of canned tomatoes was trundled out Sainsbury's back door. There's no certainty that American or Australian consumers would react in the same way, but the activists are hoping.
Remember that 60 years ago people worried pasteurization would "kill" their milk, rather than just killing dangerous bacteria in the milk. It took the fear of milk-borne tuberculosis to overcome the fear of the "unknown" pasteurization.
At the eco-demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year, I attended a seminar organized by the opponents of biotech foods. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat from Ohio, warned the activists that Congress was not yet willing to ban biotech foods. He recommended they settle for mandatory labeling as a step toward an eventual ban.
Activists also want to push the public as far away from biotech foods as they can before the industry presents any more-attractive food options that might change consumers' minds in favor of biotechnology.
The old Flavr Savr tomato, introduced in the mid-1990s, was a failure --it just didn't taste very good - but if biotech suddenly comes up with a truly good off-season tomato or allergen-free peanut, consumer attitudes toward biotech foods may become much more positive.
In fact, activists could well object if companies tried to put a label on modified food explaining the reduced need for pesticide sprays.
Anti-biotech forces are pushing their own organic foods. U.S. organic sales dropped a sharp 38 percent worldwide in 1998, but rebounded in 1999 when the biotech food scare campaign reached the United States.
At the U.S. Organic Foods Conference last year, one organic marketer said, "The potential to develop the organic market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down."
Yet while the organic movement is demanding labeling of biotech foods, it has fought labeling mandates on organic food. In Europe, the organic- food lobby has opposed government safety standards and more restrictive labels for organic foods.
A British organic advocate condemned them as "perpetuating the conflict of interests in the industry by giving too much weight to consumers." In America, the organic industry in 1996 opposed stricter
labeling and testing requirements for U.S. organic food exports.
Consumer Alert, a Washington-based consumer group, recently warned the FDA that "Mandatory labeling that may be perceived as unnecessarily alarming can stand in the way of consumer acceptance of this process that could be invaluable in improving the world's food supply."
Besides, consumers in our free market already have an option if they want to avoid genetically modified foods. They can buy organic foods.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.