Why label food? Sticker Shock

January 22, 2001, The New Republic
Eli Kintisch

"Americans have consistently demanded the right to know what's in their food, " Senator Barbara Boxer righteously informed participants in a hearing on the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food last September. "Why not tell Americans whether the ingredients in their food are natural or genetically engineered?" It's a popular plea. During the presidential campaign, both Al Gore and Ralph Nader promised mandatory labels on GM food. According to a recent Harris poll, 86 percent of Americans support the idea. " It's the very least that food producers can do," explains Craig Culp of Greenpeace. "People should be able to make informed decisions about what they eat." The argument is simple, ommonsensical--and wrong. What consumers have " the right to know" is that mandatory labels for GM food would, in all likelihood, add to hoppers' confusion, as well as to their grocery bills.

When people talk about labeling GM food, they're generally thinking of the vegetable aisle of the supermarket. And if labeling simply meant putting a sticker on the genetically modified tomatoes of the future, it would make sense. But pumped-up fruits and vegetables are just the tip of the GM iceberg. Genetically engineered components--oil from GM soybeans, sugar from GM beets, flour from GM corn--also show up in lots of processed food. In fact, according to Greenpeace, they're present in more than 60 percent of the items on grocery-store shelves. (And, needless to say, they've caused no known health problems at all.) So do you slap labels on these products too? Keep in mind that while the oils, sugars, and flours in question come from genetically modified plants, the ingredients themselves usually are chemically indistinguishable from their non-GM equivalents. Complicating the issue still further are foods --such as beer, yogurt, bread, and cheese--that contain no GM ingredients at all but may be processed by genetically customized enzymes and microorganisms. Should we label these as well?

Given the quiet ubiquity of GM ingredients and processing in the food we already eat, a catchall GM label would be too broad to provide consumers with much guidance. In England, where food manufacturers began voluntarily labeling products containing GM ingredients in 1997, Jackie Dowthwaite of Britain's Food and Drink Federation says that "roughly half of the products in the supermarkets had the labels. "And, just to be safe, many manufacturers labeled products as GM even if they weren't sure whether the sugar or flour or oil in them came from GM plants--thus making it impossible for consumers to make informed decisions.

Alternatively, you could label only products that contain GM substances in reasonably large doses--say, 1 percent of the combined ingredients. (This is, in fact, the standard that the 15 European Union countries--including Britain--adopted last January.) But this compromise doesn't really address the concerns that prompted the labeling movement in the first place. For activists morally opposed to "meddling" with nature, a 1 percent meddling threshold is still unacceptable. And for those truly concerned about the safety of GM food, it's not much of a safeguard. "We worry about toxic substances in foods that appear at a level of 0.00001 percent," says Joseph Hotchkiss, a professor of food science and toxicology at Cornell University.

What's more, even if labeling were required only for food modified beyond some arbitrary threshold, you'd still have the problem of manufacturers who have no idea how much GM food --if any--their products contain. As in Britain, an American manufacturer of breakfast cereal, for example, may not know where the sugars and oils in its granola come from. Commercial crops such as corn and soybeans are sold in vast quantities, with GM and non- GM plants often inadvertently mixed together. When these crops are processed into oil and other products, things become more confusing still. By the time those products reach the granola manufacturer, there's no telling whether they contain some GM substances or not. After all, soybean and corn oils extracted from GM plants are chemically identical to those from non- GM ones.

The only way to ensure that a given ingredient comes from non-GM sources would be to create separate production lines from field to factory to grocery store. This wouldn't just require additional paperwork and regulatory bureaucracy to keep the GM and non- GM streams segregated. It would require entirely new grain bins, trucks, and cleaning procedures to ensure that non-GM crops and products were not "contaminated" by GM varieties as they were harvested, stored, shipped, and processed. Joe Parcell, an economist at the University of Missouri, estimates that segregating GM and non- GM soybeans could add "up to a dollar of segregation costs" to a $5 to $6 bushel of soybeans. A study for the Canadian market by kpmg Consulting projects that such segregation would force a retail-price markup of as much as 10 percent for food containing corn, canola, and soy-based products. For crops such as corn, whose GM varieties can transmit their genes to plants in adjacent fields via pollen, the costs of segregation could be even higher. The Chicago Federal Reserve warned this year that, in addition to raising prices at the supermarket, the burden of segregating GM and non-GM crops could make " smaller and higher-cost agriculture firms less viable." And this burden will only grow as the food industry uses greater and greater varieties of GM ingredients.

Anti-GM activists claim that in the 1990s the food industry used a similar cost "myth" to try to avoid the standardized "Nutrition Facts" labels now on foods. But Cornell's Hotchkiss argues that GM labeling will cost "a lot more." Moreover, the cost will be borne by consumers generally, whether or not they want to avoid GM -labeled food. "The major expense is not putting the label on," says University of Saskatchewan research scientist Alan McHughen, "it's keeping it off."

All of which points to a solution that would help consumers make informed choices, limit the confusion caused by ubiquitous labels, and raise prices only for those consumers who consider GM food a problem: voluntary, standardized labeling of food without GM ingredients. Only companies that wanted to label their products " GM-free" would have to pay for the attendant segregation, quality control, and verification--and they would pass those costs along to their customers. Toward this end, the Food and Drug Administration, which rejected mandatory labeling last May, is already drafting guidelines that define when manufacturers can use a "non- GM" label. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that food labeled " organic" would not contain GM ingredients, giving consumers an additional way to choose.

A "non-GM" label has the virtue of recognizing that GM-free products are now the exception at your local supermarket, rather than the rule. Consumers willing to pay the extra cost for such specialty products would be able to do so--just as millions of Americans already buy food certified kosher or organic. Those unconcerned about genetic tinkering wouldn't have to fund an extensive labeling regime. And the market would take it from there. If, as anti-GM activists argue, a majority of shoppers would pay extra to avoid GM food, we'd find out. Fueled by consumer demand, the GM-free niche would expand until it began pushing GM food off the shelves. On the other hand, if Americans generally prefer the cost, taste, or whatever of the bioengineered food they've been eating unknowingly (and without ill effect) for years, they'd have that option as well. And evidence suggests that many would take it. Even in the midst of Britain's political firestorm over GM food, tomato paste clearly labeled produced from genetically modified tomatoes sold better than its non-GM competitor in Sainsbury's supermarkets, a British chain. Why? The GM variety, says a company representative, was cheaper.

(Copyright 2001, The New Republic)

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