|Labeling Genetically Modified Foods: Communicating or Creating Confusion?
Statement of Gregory A. Jaffe,(1) at Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology's Public Form, June 27, 2002.
Of the many issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology, probably the most contentious is
whether there should be mandatory labeling of food products. Most surveys find strong support among
U.S. consumers for mandatory labeling identifying genetically engineered ("GE") content. For example,
a survey in 2001 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found approximately two-thirds of
consumers desire labeling of GE food. That survey found most Americans also desire labeling for
many other currently unlabeled food processes, such as whether crops were sprayed with pesticides
(76%) or imported (56%). The desire for labeling of GE foods, however, was strong only for a modest
percentage of respondents. Seventeen percent of those surveyed picked GE food labeling (out of four
choices) as their top priority, and only 28% of respondents would want GE labeling if it added $50 or
more per year (about 1%) to their family's food bill. Therefore, although most consumers want GE
foods labeled, only a small core of consumers consider this information to be highly important and most
consumers are not willing to pay much for that information.
A properly set-up mandatory labeling system would be the best method to provide information
about GE foods. That system would need to provide accurate and value-free information without
significantly raising food costs. It would not require warning statements, but might mandate
identification of GE ingredients in the ingredient list. Also, that system would provide consumers real
choice, so that consumers could purchase foods with or without GE ingredients. To date, mandatory
labeling systems in Europe have effectively eliminated choice because manufacturers have sourced GE-free ingredients instead of labeling their products.
Even with consumer support, it is unlikely the United States will institute mandatory labeling in
the next several years. The biotechnology industry, the food industry, the Congress Democrats and
Republicans and the Bush Administration all oppose mandatory labeling. So, in a way, debating
about labeling is an academic exercise.
The biotechnology and food industries argue that voluntary labeling is the most efficient and
effective way to provide consumers with information about GE content in foods. The evidence strongly
suggests, however, that voluntary labeling will not provide consumers with the information they desire.
Few manufacturers will voluntarily label that a food contain GE ingredients because they fear, with good
reason, they will lose customers if a label declares the presence of a GE ingredient. Thus, a voluntary
system will result in a few products labeled that they do not contain GE ingredients ("absence" claims)
and virtually no products stating they contain GE ingredients.
Also, a voluntary labeling system will not provide consumers with accurate and value-free
information about GE content. Many current products with "absence" labeling imply through label
statements that their product is superior to products with GE ingredients. This results in false or
misleading claims because currently there is no known safety, nutritional, taste, or quality difference
between GE and non-GE crops. Therefore, much of the information provided in a voluntary system
will take advantage of consumers' concerns and lack of knowledge about biotechnology, instead of
providing accurate and non-disparaging information.
If mandatory labeling is not going to be required and voluntary labeling is ineffective, how can
consumers get the information they desire about GE foods? Depending on the reason why the
consumer wants information, there may be interim measures available to provide it.
Some consumers want mandatory labeling because they fear GE foods are unsafe to eat. One
way to address this concern is not labeling, but mandatory approval of GE crops before they are
marketed. Under FDA's current policy, GE crops are not approved before they are marketed.
Establishing a mandatory approval process at FDA would lessen consumer concerns about eating
unsafe GE foods, greatly reducing calls for labeling for safety reasons. If a GE food cannot be proved
safe to eat, it should not be allowed to be marketed, whether or not labeling is required.
Some consumers want labeling so they can comply with religious dietary laws while others want
to choose foods consistent with individual dietary preferences (e.g. vegetarians). Although mandatory
labeling would address those information needs, the biotechnology industry could agree to product
boundaries for unlabeled GE foods that might alleviate those consumer concerns. Stakeholders
representing consumers with special diets and industry could establish biological boundaries for GE
products (such as agreeing not to put pig genes in plants) so that those with special diets could eat
foods with GE ingredients without violating their dietary laws or preferences. In addition, the industry
would agree that if products fall outside those boundaries, it would voluntarily provide appropriate
information on the food label.
Finally, some consumers want mandatory labeling so they can affirmatively choose whether to
eat GE foods, instead of having GE ingredients "hidden" from them. Only individual product-specific
information about GE-content will allow those consumers to make an informed choice. Thus, the food
manufacturing industry should voluntarily make product-specific GE content information available to
consumers who inquire. Industry should meet with consumer organizations and others to identify
information consumers desire and then provide that information when a consumer inquires by telephone
or e-mail or goes to a website. Although providing this information would not fully substitute for
mandatory labeling, it would enable consumers who care the most about this issue to obtain the
information they believe is necessary for informed choices about food purchases.
Industry should listen to consumers and find ways to provide information about GE ingredients
in an accurate and value-free manner. Alleviating the concerns behind calls for labeling through a
mandatory approval process for GE foods and voluntary standards for disclosing information are
interim steps that might tone down the debate on this topic.
1 Portions of this statement come from "Getting Consumers the Information They Want About
Genetically Engineered Foods: An Interim Solution" in the November/December issue of FDLI's