Labeling GMOs

Labeling of GMOs is a contentious topic that has no doubt crossed your radar. It’s certainly beyond the scope of a single blog post. But I wanted to respond briefly to an article I saw recently in NPR’s food blog, The Salt. The article describes how food manufacturers, led by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, are proposing a voluntary labeling standard to the FDA. The catch? In addition to having labeling of GMOs be voluntary (as it currently is in the United States), it proposes to prevent states from issuing their own regulations.

I do not think that labeling GMOs is a useful exercise. Generally, we want to put labels on foods that provide useful information to consumers about the health and contents of the food. I am of the opinion that labeling something as containing GMOs is not providing information about the health of the food nor meaningful information to separate it from non-GMO food. There are no substantial health concerns over genetically modified foods simply because they have been modified by genetic engineering. This is a stance supported by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This is all besides the fact that there is effectively a labeling standard in the United States already. It’s called Organic. Foods labeled Organic cannot contain ingredients from genetically modified foods. If you are buying Organic food, it is GMO free. If you are buying any other processed food in the United States made with corn, soy or canola oil—in addition to animals fed these products—you are buying GM food. As of 2010, 85% of corn and 91% of soybeans planted in the U.S. were genetically modified. These are the major ingredients both in animal feed and processed foods that line the middle aisles of grocery stores. It includes the corn syrup that’s in everything, soy oil, and a bunch of those seemingly random ingredients like xanthan gum and dextrose. (Organic meat must come from animals fed Organic feed).

This does not include sweet corn. The corn and soy discussed here are “commodity” crops and not typically meant for direct food consumption.

All that said, I don’t really believe the food manufacturers when they complain about the costs of labeling. There is something to be said for the costs of keeping up with the sources of ingredients. But as I mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that if a major food company (think Kraft) is sourcing corn or soy from the United States, it is GMO.

I have two main concerns with the voluntary standards. First, they’re voluntary. Even coming from the position that GMO labeling does not provide particularly useful information, having an industry regulate itself is just a silly exercise. We all know they won’t. Conflict of interest and all that. 

Second, the idea of imposing a ban against state-specific labeling standards seems premature. Yes, the FDA requires nutritional labeling and states cannot override that. And yes, it would actually be costly to coordinate fifty different labeling standards. But one of the great things about the United States is the federalist system that gives states a significant amount of autonomy. That means states can choose to test new ideas and new regulations. It means that marriage rights are extended to gay citizens much sooner than if the House and Senate had to decide on it. And it means that sometimes states go too far and over-regulate. Or list every damn thing as known-to-the-State-of-California-to-cause-cancer. That’s the price we pay for governmental innovation and trial-and-error.

If people decide they want to label GMOs, do it right. Voluntary standards won’t get you anywhere. Most of the time, I think that labeling GMOs would push the debate in a different direction. I wish it wouldn't come as such a big surprise, but I think a lot of people would be shocked to know they've been eating GMOs for a while now. In the United States, GMOs are just food. And the cotton in your shirts. Almost every Hawaiian papaya. The chicken and beef and bacon you eat. The oil you splash in your pan. Maybe people would see that it’s not as fundamental a shift as it is often portrayed.