Food labels for me are like the instructions on new electronic toys. I’m so impatient to get to the fun part of the device, I consume first and, maybe, I read later. A big part of the reason I don’t stand in supermarket aisles reading labels is the sheer overabundance of information on the label that means nothing to me. If I had a food allergy, it would be different, but in my case, I don’t have the time or inclination. Maybe it’s because I understand federal food safety oversight and the priorities on food safety, nutrition and taste held by the food industry.
I think I’m pretty average in my behavior. In fact, I’m always wary of consumer activist surveys trumpeting “consumers demand” pull-out food labels listing everything from calories, carbs and other ingredients to where the processing plant is located, from whence every ingredient was imported and the birthday of the company president. I contend those who respond to these surveys answer out of political correctness, not based on their real world behavior.
So why do activists these days demand U.S. food labels carry messages about whether the food product is the product of or contains ingredients developed with biotechnology? Industry – farmers, ranchers, feed companies, food companies, etc. – killed off a 2012 California ballot initiative to force biotech labeling; most states have walked away from similar initiatives and legislation, and FDA has quietly affirmed it does not and will not mandate labels based on production practices nor on ingredients not “materially different” than conventional ingredients.
This reality hasn’t stopped Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA) or Rep. Pete DeFazio (D, OR) from cajoling a handful of their colleagues to join them in introducing legislation to require FDA to mandate labeling of foods and foods containing ingredients that are the products of genetic engineering (GE), including livestock, poultry and pet foods. Why? A very long, kind of snarky press release boils down to 1) Ms. Boxer and Mr. DeFazio are not “anti-GE,” even if a good percentage of the bill’s supporters could be classed as “anti-GE;” 2) “the consumer has a right to know” and 3) 60-plus other countries require labeling.
Ms. Boxer’s and Mr. DeFazio’s legislation translates to an expensive and pointless message on just about every food product regulated by FDA. First, no food ingredient is approved no matter how it’s developed or grown unless it’s scientifically demonstrated as safe. Second, the Boxer/DeFazio bill only amends FDA’s authorizing law, not USDA’s, so roughly a third of food products sold in the U.S. and abroad wouldn’t carry the label. Third, why is it important to know about the biotechnology underlying food production, but not all other science/technology/production systems used in food production?
Most annoying is that because more than 90% of the corn and soybeans grown the U.S. is from drought-resistant, disease-resistant, pest-resistant GE seed, just about every FDA-regulated food product containing corn, soybeans, a lot of the wheat grown and a passel of other grains, oilseeds, fruits and veggies – or any ingredient derived therefrom – would carry this GE label.
Back to my point about consumers, political correctness and behavior. In 2011, the University of Minnesota found 203 consumers for a study on what label information they scanned when buying food products. The study subjects were shown 64 food items and asked if they’d buy the product. Using electronic magic, the study tracked eye movements, i.e. what the person looked at when viewing the product. My suspicions are correct, at least according to a Time Magazine report by Meredith Melnick on the study.
“Researchers found a big difference between what the eye tracker said people looked at and what the participants self-reported they typically looked at while shopping. Thirty-three percent of participants said they ‘almost always’ looked at a product’s calorie content on the Nutrition Facts label; 31% said they almost always looked at total fat content…24% said they studied products’ sugar content and 26% said they paid close attention to serving size…(w)hat the eye-tracking data showed: only 9% looked at calorie count for almost all the items in the experiment; 1% looked at each of the other components, including fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size, for almost all of the products.”
So what’s achieved by labeling foods, ingredients, etc., as products of GE technology? Expensive labeling changes, the cost of which would inevitably be borne by the consumer; more information on already-crowded food labels; a two-tier labeling system where some foods are labeled, others not; yet another leap down the road to European-style “precautionary” regulation/labeling based on the “what ifs” of risk, and a labeling message providing little if any benefit to consumers, and which studies demonstrates will likely be treated by consumers as the labeling equivalent of white noise.
But it’s not “anti-GE.”