by Marion Nestle
Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

3174531452_4f024f62aa

Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.

  • Janet Camp

    I’m torn on this issue:

    Yes, labeling GM content seems fair enough in the interest of transparency, but much as I despise Monsanto, I don’t believe there is evidence (not the suspicion of the supplement/herbal, alt. “medicine” crowd) that it is harmful. Feel free to enlighten me if there is real scientific evidence that GM is harmful to humans per se. I still don’t like it and still would prefer labeling, but that is more political than anything else.

    However, to me, labeling is more like the organic issue, probably little or no actual nutritional benefit, but many other types of benefit (environmental, labor, animal welfare, etc.)

    Here in Wisconsin (the dairy state), most stores label those products which are free of BgST, but are forced to add the ridiculous disclaimer that the milk is no different that that which is treated with the growth hormone (as if THAT might matter to those of us who rather object to doing this to cows in the first place or to the family farms who feel forced to do this in order to compete).

  • http://www.localfoodblog.blogspot.com Sarah

    I’m not torn on this issue at all. To me, it’s not about whether or not an item is harmful. I have no known allergies, so I don’t *need* to know what is in a processed food that I buy. But despite that, I think that I have a right to know what is in the foods that I buy. If that ingredient is a GM modified ingredient, I deserve to know that also.

    The only reason *not* to label GM foods as such is to protect GM producer’s profits.

  • Mary

    I’m confused. Can you explain to me the difference between corn oil derived from GM corn vs corn oil derived from conventional corn? I mean the molecular and/or protein content differences.

    Same with the sugar. Can you please explain the difference in the actual sugar molecules?

    And if there aren’t any differences, why do they need to be labeled?

  • http://psystenance.com Michael

    The paternalism of arguments against labelling is infuriating: “we do not think the difference is important, and we don’t want to confuse those poor helpless consumers who might think otherwise.”

  • http://littlemindbigthoughts.blogpspot.com Corey Clark

    But the issue comes back to the question of whether or not GM foods are harmful.

  • Cathy Richards

    The issue is not about harm. The issue is about the right to know. Does “made in the USA” guarantee more safety than “made in Canada”? Not likely, but as a Canadian I expect I’d tend to buy a Canadian product, and an American to buy a USA product. That’s because we like sending our dollars to causes we feel connected to. I want my dollars to go to non-GM foods — many reasons why — to the point where I would likely buy USA non-GM instead of Canadian GM.

    Currently when I buy organic (at least in Canada) I know that I’m not getting GM products. But I’m sure there’s many non-organic farmers that are GM “free” and their crops should be recognized as such.

  • sid

    Ok, it’s clear to me that Monsanto does not want GM-food labeling, so to me then it’s pretty clear they have something to hide from the consumer (give us the information to make the choice… is that so difficult? apparently not, thanks Marion). The three most important aspects to marketing GM foods to consumers are: Transparency, transparency, transparency. This is not the same as the corporate goals to marketing GM foods to consumers of invisibility, invisibility, invisibility.

    How is this deception a good thing for me?

    The corporate control on government regulatory process is a massive national disgrace of the USA… democracy it sure ain’t.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Inoculated Mind

    I posted this in a previous discussion about GE labeling, but it probably got buried and wasn’t noticed. I would appreciate a response from Marion Nestle because it is an important point that needs to be made about the GE labeling issue:

    @Marion Nestle: I wonder, do you think it would be a good idea to label varieties that have traits derived through mutagenesis? Or how about those that have genes moved over through crosses with distant wild relatives, which sometimes require embryo rescue in order to germinate? Each of these techniques add new genes or drastically modify the genome, as in the case of mutagenesis, and there is no testing required of either one.

  • Marion

    @Inoculated Mind: I see GM labeling as an issue of consumer choice, not of science. Overwhelming and consistent evidence indicates that the public wants GM foods labeled as such. As demonstrated in the U.K., such labeling is easy to do. I can’t think of any reason not to do it. Traditional and somewhat less traditional genetic crosses of the types you describe do not generate the same level of concern in most people.

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Inoculated Mind

    Marion, thanks for responding to my question. Consumers have also clearly expressed the desire to have pesticides labeled on food products, often exceeding the percentage of consumers that desire GE labels. In a 2001 CSPI poll, they got some interesting results:

    http://www.cspinet.org/reports/op_poll_labeling.html
    “Many consumers desire information on food labels about how foods and their ingredients were produced. A strong majority wanted foods containing GE ingredients to be labeled, 62% in one question (Question #2) and 70% in another (Question #3). To put those response rates in a larger context, the survey asked about the labeling of other technologies. Seventy six percent of consumers wanted labeling for crops grown using pesticides (Question #3), 65% for crops grown using plant hormones (Question #3), and 56% for crops that were imported (Question #2). Remarkably, 40% of respondents said that they would like products containing cross-bred corn to be labeled (Question #3).”

    Given four choices for their highest food priority, one of which being GE food labeling, and another being pesticide residue labeling, only 17% of respondents chose GE labels, while 31% chose pesticides.

    This is backed up by studies done on actual purchasing behaviors – when given the choice between genetic engineering and pesticides, two studies done on sweet corn in Canada and California, and a study done on fruit in the EU all agree that people choose the GE option over the pesticide option.

    Why aren’t there people campaigning to have pesticides all labeled on food and food products, when the majority of consumers have expressed a desire to know that information about the food they eat? Personally, I would like to know if the food I eat comes from a farm that used conservation tillage, no tillage, and/or integrated pest management. But the cost of implementing such a system would be too much right now unless it could be made more cost-effective.

    Since then, I know of other polls that show higher percentages (87%) for those who want labeling for GE crops. But as the 2001 poll (and other conducted elsewhere, such as when Oregon was considering a ban on GE crops) have shown that most consumers are not willing to pay anything more than $10 per year out of their food budget to have these labels. Only 28% of consumers polled would be willing to pay 0.9% more for their food (~$50 per year) to have these labels. Even amongst the 17% of people who placed GE labels as a high priority, still 50% of them indicated that they would not be willing to pay more than $10 per year for those labels.

    Doesn’t it make more sense for the few people that are willing to pay more for GE/non-GE labels, that they should shoulder the cost in niche markets, such as Whole Foods?

    So while polls continue to show that people want more information on foods and food products, that information comes at a cost, and most consumers are not willing to pay more to have that information. I believe it is both an issue of science and of consumer choice. In particular, when you look at the science ON consumer choice it indicates a more complex set of desires that don’t necessarily support a simple “GE” label. (one UK study noted that it did not affect purchasing behavior noticably.) For the record, I’m not an opponent of labeling per se.

    Am I to understand that if the majority of consumers wanted foods labeled by the other techniques I listed, that you would support those labels?

  • Mary

    Ah, I see–it’s not a science issue. That makes it more like a religious issue, like Kosher.

    That’s fine with me, I don’t mind if people want to organize themselves, create their rules, do their testing and certification, and put an organic religion sticker on foods.

    But I see no reason for the government to have to do that. I would really rather see Feds put their energy and resources into testing and certifying actual scientific based content issues.

  • http://www.geneticmaize.com Anastasia

    I am a vegetarian (for a variety of reasons), and avoid animal by-products such as gelatin. I would LOVE to have a “vegetarian” label on foods so I wouldn’t have to wonder if ingredients like gelatin in a particular product are from an animal source.

    However, I understand that my choice to avoid animal gelatin is not based on science – there are no health dangers associated with animal gelatin. Any prospective “vegetarian” labels on food products would only be appropriate if voluntary.

    I have no basis on which to demand a “vegetarian” label from the USDA or FDA or any other government agency. I do have a right to ask food companies through petitions, letters, etc. to include such a label on their products. Each company should have a right to decide whether or not they wish to provide such a label, whether or not they find the potential benefit to their customers to be worth the increased cost in research, label redesign, etc.

    Labels that say “GM” or “non-GM” should be voluntary for the same reasons.

  • http://www.geneticmaize.com Anastasia

    Just in case anyone’s interested in an alternative perspective, I’ve expanded on the ideas in my comment above in a post at Genetic Maize: http://geneticmaize.com/blog/2009/8/21/whats-in-a-label.html

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  • http://www.roamingtales.com Caitlin – Roaming Tales

    @Mary There is actually scientific credibility to the fact that the end result is different, though that’s only part of the picture. If the corn is genetically different, then it makes sense that the oil derived from that corn will also be genetically different. From my understanding as lay person, that is below the molecular level.

    However, that’s only part of the argument. I believe consumers have a right to know about the process not just the end result. There are many other reasons why people might choose to avoid GM. To name just a few:
    – Concern over the patenting of seeds and the tactics used to enforce those patents.
    – Concern over overuse of pesticides (many GM varieties are designed to be pesticide (esp herbicide) resistant).
    – Concern over the seeds escaping and contaminating nearby the fields of other farmers (who may then be sued for patent infringement or in some cases, lose their organic certification).
    – Concern over the seeds escaping into the wild.
    You may not agree with these concerns but I think consumers have a right to know and to make up their own minds.

    The precedent in law already exists. A factory in China and a factory in California may be able to produce an identical t-shirt, but one will be labeled ‘Made in China’ and the other ‘Made in the USA’. Why? It’s not because the t-shirt is different. It’s because consumers have a right to know about the process as well.

  • http://factoidz.com/experts-in/health/ Jim

    If there is nothing wrong with the GE foods, than there shouldnt be any problem with foods being labeled as such. The US government wouldnt out any money, they pass a law and thats that.

    Pro GMO people continue to say there is no scientific evidence that GMO foods are harmful, and there really arent any long term studies that say it is safe.

    SInce it is so safe, label the foods GMO and be done with it, end of argument. Consumers win, all consumers win.

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