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Labels of Red Tape

Kris Schnee

Last month’s Bio2000 conference in Boston drew an estimated 8,000 people to a discussion of the future of biotechnology -- eight thousand people, that is, inside the building. Thousands more gathered in the streets for an event they called BioDevastation 2000, a demonstration with picket signs and people dressed as genetically-modified “killer tomatoes.”

Clearly, some United States consumers are beginning to take an interest in the food on their plate, echoing similar sentiment in Europe. Europeans, having suffered through several recent food scares like the “mad cow disease” outbreak of 1996, have become understandably jittery about the purity of their food. Now, Europeans are taking their grievances unreasonably far by attacking, sometimes even physically, crops which pose them no harm. Can we expect Americans to follow the example of European anti-biotech extremists, sabotaging fields and destroying property, or will the American debate remain peaceful? Our policy towards genetically-modified (GM) foods today could determine whether we have any choice about our policy tomorrow.

One of the major issues surrounding the GM food controversy is the labeling problem. In short, do we legally force all companies selling food in the United States to label their products accordingly if they contain genetically-modified ingredients, do we encourage companies to do the same without strong-arming them into it, or do we just sit back and let Greenpeace and Monsanto “negotiate” on our behalf?

If we do nothing, what will happen? American consumers will continue to not know exactly what they are buying, a foolish situation regardless of the safety or danger of GM foods. Faced with a total unknown every time they visit the grocery store, at least a vocal minority of Americans will decide to eliminate their uncertainty in a heavy-handed way -- by demanding that grocery stores and food manufacturers stop offering GM-containing products. These demands have already surfaced in England, with pressure being put on supermarket chains to clear their aisles (or at least their own generic brands) of biotech products. Here the total laissez-faire approach to regulation actually would decrease individual freedom, because it would result in an entire category of food being pulled from the shelves. For the sake of shoppers who don’t want to read labels, more informed consumers will be given fewer choices in what to buy and what to eat. There must be a better way to handle the GM issue than this.

How about immediately requiring, by federal law, that all companies selling foods with genetically-modified ingredients add a green double-helix icon to their packaging? A push for federal legislation would not create immediate action, but a maybe, kind-of, someday situation; we couldn’t count on having a coherent labeling system anytime soon. In fact, something similar was tried just a few years ago--there was an attempt to establish a national standard for “organic” food, a definition which came to include food made from plants designed in a lab.

Even assuming we could quickly make and enforce a national GM labeling standard, would it make sense to do so? Currently, FDA labeling applies to aspects of a food known to affect health, like fat and vitamins. We also widely accept labeling products for health hazards which affect only a tiny minority of the population (namely phenylketonurics -- see any soda can). But genetic modification of plants is only a technique, not an ingredient. Unless we are going to start listing the genotype of every species on the supermarket shelves, all a GM label will mean is that the product’s ingredients are different in some unspecified way from the “natural” (actually selectively bred over millennia) version. How useful would this information be to the public?

And why would the government be involved in controlling GM labeling at all? There are no known health risks associated with the techniques of crop modification, and the FDA treats a potato as a potato so long as it is “substantially equivalent.” Government-run labeling could give people the idea that the FDA considers altered genes as dangerous as saturated fat or tobacco (or worse), needlessly depressing the biotech industry. Worse, such labeling would create still more regulations and red tape for business to endure; why increase government’s power if the same goals can be met by private action?

A side note: While genetic modification itself is safe as far as we know, specific products made with its techniques may not be. Michael Borucke, in last week’s column “What’s That In My Milk?”, charged the Monsanto Corporation with concealing key scientific data about the effects of bovine growth hormone on rats, and with filing lawsuits against farmers who label their milk as free of the hormone. If this is so, Monsanto’s behavior has been highly suspicious, possibly even criminal. And letting some companies block voluntary “negative labeling” by others, so long as the labeling does not explicitly say the missing ingredient/hormone/genetic modification is harmful, would simply be an oppressive act which keeps consumers uninformed about the choices they have at the market.

Do the biotech companies, or food manufacturers, want to have their products shut out of stores completely, or to be forced to deal with government labels and government bureaucracy? If their answer to both questions is no, these companies must move quickly to develop an industry-run labeling system of their own. Self-labeling would be a show of honesty to the American public, would give government one less excuse to take control of the industry, and would reduce the risk of a consumer backlash which would be in no one’s interest.