Misguided Concerns Over Food Labeling


Photo credit: CT Senate Democrats

Earlier this year Oklahoma State University released a summary of the results of an online survey polled from 1000 people in the US that tracks consumer concerns over food safety and regulation. From the polled sample, 82% supported mandatory labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.  A real discredit to those fighting for GMO labeling was the finding that 85% also supported mandatory labeling of food containing DNA.  Strikingly, only 39% of respondents were in favor of a tax on sugared sodas, which is an issue that legitimately poses health risks to the US population as I covered in a previous article, and 55% support a ban on transfat, which also poses real health risks.

Let me just quickly get this out of the way.  All food contains DNA.

Okay, moving on.  The survey itself may seem somewhat benign.  However, the real problem is that food labeling has entered the realm of politics and we can not afford to see this kind of disparity in scientific awareness when issues of science are up for vote.  With the 2014 election, we saw states like Oregon and Colorado voting on measures that would mandate labeling of GMOs.  The result was not particularly overwhelming with 66% of voters in Colorado voting against the measure and only 51% of Oregon voters, where the issue was much closer to passing.

So why not just label GMOs?

Labeling supposes that a difference exists between GMOs and non-GMOs.  Mandatory labeling is meant to inform the consumer of nutritional value or that a food item might contain a product that is metabolized differently between individuals.  For example, peanut allergies are a real thing and ingesting peanut containing products could be fatal to a person with this allergy.  That is why the FDA requires that all foods containing major known allergens be labeled according to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.  There is currently no evidence that GMOs are metabolized any differently than other food.  After all, we’ve been artificially modifying the DNA in our food to produce different traits since humans became an agricultural-centric society.  No crops that we cultivate today resembles the plants as they existed in the wild, and in some cases, as with corn, never existed before humans began shaping the environment thousands of years ago.  There is a possibility that a GMO will produce a protein that people are allergic to but the labeling procedure should not and currently is not treated differently than other allergens.

I’ve already written extensively about the topic of GMOs and why the scientific consensus has found the benefits to far outweigh the potential risks.  I won’t rehash all those arguments, so I would encourage you to go here if you are interested in the details.

Photo credit: greensefa

Photo credit: greensefa

We can look to Europe to see what affect mandatory GMO labeling has had.  Interestingly, a study published in 2008 found that despite public opposition and lack of knowledge pertaining to GMOs, actual consumer sales were relatively unaffected by labeling and were influenced much more by the price tag.  However, the added regulation has caused a decline in jobs and research in biotechnology and agricultural sciences.  In turn the US has remained a global leader in GMO production and much of European GM foods are imported from the US.  It costs resources to implement such a mandate and this will likely come from both taxpayers and biotech companies.  Ultimately, it will become an issue which hurts the farmer.  The potential downsides of mandatory labeling is summed up best in the same article I link to above:

What then is the point of imposing further regulations, which only provide the illusion of freedom of information and freedom of choice? Most likely, the major important consequence of maintaining such a policy would be trade disruption, causing great economic losses both for exporters (such as the USA) and the importers (in this case, the EU).

Currently, labeling of GMOs is on a voluntary basis and serves as little more than a marketing ploy.  The fact is, GM foods are nearly indistinguishable from other food.  Largely, they have the same appearance as normal food, same taste, and same nutritional value with the only real difference coming down to a single inserted transgene and its protein product. it would be difficult, impossible in some cases, to validate a claim that a food is “GMO free.”

The Non-GMO Project currently offers the most rigorous auditing process but even they can’t guarantee that a food will be 100% GMO free with a 0.9% allowable amount of GMOs on products containing the Non-GMO Project label.  My understanding is that cross pollination and contamination with GMOs is nearly impossible to control, so an allowable threshold is understandable.  Currently there are no actionable threshold levels set for products containing allergens but I believe they are required to have an allergen label if there is even a threat of cross contamination with an allergen from the manufacturing and processing, which underlies a true need for mandatory labeling of this sort.  If GMOs were truly dangerous, would anything under 1% be acceptable in your food?

As a side note, it’s interesting that the Non-GMO Project label can be found on products that do not even have a GM counterpart, nor could possibly contain GMOs from contamination.  Maybe I’m misreading the message and we’re not to assume that GMOs are so ubiquitous that they could potentially be hiding in everything we purchase.  Perhaps the intention is merely to indicate a company’s support of the Non-GMO Project’s mission.  I’m not against it either way.  It is voluntary after all, but it certainly highlights the marketing value of such labels while contributing to the demonization of GMOs.

There are no genetically modified coconuts, but the Non-GMO Project has you covered just in case you didn't know.

There are no genetically modified coconuts, but the Non-GMO Project has you covered just in case you didn’t know.

There are other deceptive practices that belie the food labeling landscape that might mislead the well-intentioned consumer, some of which are loosely regulated by the USDA or the sub group the National Organic Program (NOP).  For example, did you know that for poultry to be considered “free range,” the animals have to meet the requirement of having access to the outdoors for a minimum of 5 minutes a day?  The label might lead you to envision large open fields of gold with chickens running free as they please. The “Organic” label may not meet your expectations either.  For something to earn the label “Organic” it must contain no more than 5% of synthetic or conventional components, and pesticides are still acceptable as long as they are “organic” pesticides which are often no less dangerous than conventional pesticides and require wider application.

All of these terms are best summarized in an article published in the Journal of Pediatrics, so I will conclude this post with a copy of a table from that article which summarizes what those labels actually mean.

Forman J, Silverstein J; et al. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):e1406-15. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579. Epub 2012 Oct  22.

Forman J, Silverstein J; et al. Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):e1406-15. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579. Epub 2012 Oct 22.




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