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March 30, 2000


ABC.Com on Labeling GM Food: Please Vote!


- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Labeling, at least in the United States, is an important consumer protection.
Not a consumer right to know issue. Regulators entrusted with protecting
the public, not interest groups or corporations, must stand up for consumer
protections in the face of this current campaign.

This is an important issue for everyone as labeling is really not just about
biotechnology. Labeling is a consumer protection issue that extends well
beyond one single production method. To open the door to production-based,
non-nutrition and non-safety related labels requires a significantly broader
debate that should include all production methods. This is where the
European (and in particular the U.K.) leadership failed their constituents.

There is a good piece on labeling available at http://www.eat2k.org, which
details the history of food labeling as a consumer protection in the U.S.,
not a consumer right-to-know, issue. Protections for consumers' nutrition
and safety needs, and protection against abuses from unscrupulous marketers
who would use labels or other branding of food to increase their market share
while misleading consumers about the safety of competitors products. This is
what happened in the U.K. when they moved from a science-based safety and
nutrition labeling regime to include the "consumer right to know" (or
eco-ethical labeling as it's been described by UK Minister David Byrne)
issues, foods derived from biotechnology-improved crops, has led to consumer
confusion, higher food costs and marketing abuses by retailers.

It should be no surprise that those most vocal about labeling of
biotechnology derived foods are also the biggest proponents of organic
agriculture. The organic industry, funding these groups, is also strongly
supporting these labels. Clearly, they see this as a marketing advantage as
labeling biotechnology products has no other impact on organic foods -- they
are already certified and branded as GMO-free. (There is a well documented
history of food-scare or "black marketing" by the organic industry which is
terribly under-reported.) Interestingly enough, these same people oppose
labels on organic foods that would alert consumers to higher risks of
bacterial contamination due to organic production methods. In this case,
there is actually a food safety issue determined by scientific testing --
yet, the organic industry and the activists lobbying for labels on their
behalf, oppose protecting consumers "right to know" on this front.
(Unfortunately for scientists, food scares (real or imagined) sell two things
very well: organic food and newspapers -- so responsible voices are often
lost in this debate due to the economic interests of these groups.)

Including non-nutrition, non-safety related information as part of labels
opens the door to a range of "political" or "eco-ethical" requirements of
food producers, essentially creating a food tax whereby all consumers are
force to pay the cost of individual or narrow interest groups' political or
ethical food choices. This is a marketing issue, where foods in the U.S. (as
long as they comply with appropriate legal issues dictated by the Federal
Trade Commission which overseas advertising) can brand themselves (say as
Kosher or Organic) to meet the non-safety and non-nutritional requests of

If we open the door to label foods based on a biotechnology production method
that does not change the food's safety or nutrition, what would be next?

How about dictating that farmers log volumes and types of pesticide
applications? It would logically follow (and has been requested by the same
activists lobbying against biotech) with biotech labeling as residues from
pesticides can be present in the food we purchase.

What about labels dictating how an animal (say beef cow) was raised? What
was the cow fed? How large was its pen? I'm not sure I want to pay the
cost of describing the free-range space my McDonald's hamburger enjoyed in
it's previous incarnation to appease the concerns of the Animal Liberation
Front, PETA or other narrow interest fringe groups.

And, of course there is the cost of managing these production method
reporting requirements through the food chain into the end product. One
study conducted by KPMG for the Australia/New Zealand Food Authority
estimated that biotechnology labels would costs farmers, food producers and
consumers billions of dollars in the first year alone. Think about these
costs expanding with each new social or ethical requirement dictated by this
"consumer right to know" argument.

Do the political or ethical concerns of an individual, who has was of
addressing those concerns (with biotech for example they can purchase
certified organic if they want to avoid biotech products), dictate that the
whole of society pay the costs for those choices? The nice thing about the
market place is that it meets the social or ethical needs of consumers as
long as they are willing to pay the price.

If a food derived from biotechnology changes a product in any manner
impacting safety or nutrition (such as introducing a potential allergen or
changing the amount of vitamin A) then that product would be required to
carry a label stating as such. Consumer protection and right to know about
the safety or nutrition of their food are strong and exists under the current
regulatory regime. To include unrelated production oriented labels would
significantly diminish this current consumer protection.

An interesting question to add to this story would be to ask if consumers
should be informed on the labels if crops were grown from seeds mutated to
change their genetic structure through irradiation. Because, starting in the
late 1950's seeds from many crops were altered through mutagenis (exposed to
radiation) to generate new varieties with "mutant" genes. Many plant
varieties today, including those grown as certified organic, were derived
from this production method. However, you'll not find a single organic
industry advocate willing to put the nuclear radiation symbol as part of the
label on their foods now will you? Just more evidence that their labeling
lobby efforts are reflected only in their fear that biotechnology-improved
crops will displace them in the "pesticide-free" market (as biotech crops
provide consumers with an affordable pesticide-free choice) and to use
unfounded food scare campaigns to increase their market share.

The people behind the Campaign to Label GM foods, such as Craig Winters
<http://www.craigwinters.com> and organic and natural products industry
consultant and even Congressman Kucinich, have publicly stated their goal is
a ban on biotech and that labeling is an means towards that end. Hardly an
argument for consumer choice...