by Marion Nestle
Jan 30 2012

Isn’t it about time GM foods got labels?

I was fascinated to read Cookson Beecher’s Food Safety News’ analysis of current campaigns to label genetically modified foods (GMOs).

It brought back memories of the time I served as an obviously ignored consumer representative on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee.  Back in the early 1990s, the FDA formed this committee to get advice on issues that might be controversial.  It asked us for advice about whether to approve GM foods and, if so, whether they should be labeled.

We learned later that the FDA was using the committee to give it a heads up on decisions that were already made.  The FDA had every intention of approving GMOs (I wrote about this in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

I and the other three consumer representatives argued as strongly as we could that labeling was essential:

  • Consumers have a right to know
  • Consumers want to know (polls showed this overwhelmingly, even in 1994)
  • Not-labeling will induce distrust of biotech foods and the biotech industry
  • Not-labeling will end up hurting the biotech industry (in Europe, definitely.  Monsanto is no longer selling GM corn in France and BASF has moved its biotech operations to the U.S.)
  • Not-labeling will stimulate the organic industry (it did!)
  • The FDA allows plenty of process labeling (e.g., made from concentrate, irradiated)
  • Not-labeling will make the FDA look as if it was in bed with the biotech industry
  • Transparency is always the right thing to do

Too bad our arguments failed.  Eighteen years later, not-labeling has caused no end of problems for the biotech industry.  This issue is not going away.

The FDA has approved many GM fruits and vegetables but it is impossible to know whether they are offered for sale in supermarkets (as I discussed in Safe Food, Hawaiian papayas are the most likely candidates).

But most corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in America are GM.  So are sugar beets.

Campaigns to require labeling of GM foods are heating up.

  • Washington state is considering legislation
  • California may have a ballot initiative
  • 14 states, among them Oregon, New York, Maryland and Vermont, considered bills last year
  • Alaska passed a law requiring GMO labeling of fish and shellfish in 2005
  • 50 countries require disclosure of GM ingredients

The “Just Label It!” campaign is collecting signatures.  If this is an issue you care about, signing on is easy.

  • Mary

    I keep checking back to see if there are some papers for me. Nothing still? Hmm.

  • I truly don’t understand the shrill “shill” accusations. Really, what good does it do? Even if SkepticalVegan was paid by Monsanto (he is not, to my knowledge, and neither am I) to blog and write comments on websites, what difference does it make? Let’s talk about the facts and the rationale behind labeling. Calling someone a shill doesn’t advance the conversation at all, and just makes the name caller look ignorant since they apparently can’t be bothered to look at the copious information about the person they are declaring a shill. I don’t feel the need to shout shill every time someone posts something I don’t agree with. Why do you?

  • This is a really silly notion to entertain but I’ll reluctantly add my anecdote to the pile. I’ve known SkepticalVegan for about a year now and he never ever confided in me that he worked for Monsanto in any capacity. We message often and collaborate on many topics that surround veganism, animal rights and science. Our goal is to advocate a healthy skeptical attitude towards these subjects for the betterment of all and especially the oppressed.

    Then again, anytime I bring up GMOs in any tone less than vitriolic against them the very first thing that comes out of an anti-GMO advocates mouth is the accusations of being a Monsanto shill, “spy” or “agent”. This says to me that the issue anti-GMO advocates have isn’t grounded in any sort of objective stance but an ideological one that could never be satisfied. Apologists who cuddle up to the ideologues only exacerbate the issue. Science-based professionals, like Marion Nestle whom I admire, would do well to avoid the trappings of this labeling campaign or at least clarify their position so the anti-GMOists can’t further the own irrational agenda. If Nestle has a legitimate point for the singling out of GM foods from conventional methods it would be good to hear so that I may adjust my own views. She’s smarter than me and an expert in these matters so I must assume she has good reason. If not let’s please move forward from the mire of pseudoscience and fear-mongering and empower the people with an better understanding of critical thinking and science! 


    At some point in the 1990s, Monsanto ran an advertisement in a French magazine saying that GMO food SHOULD be labeled because they are better.

    If you know of this advertisement or where I can either get a copy or document this, I would be grateful.


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  • Rick

    Great article. Too bad most of the comments on it are from paid Monsanto shills.

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