Biotechnology Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest
 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 Update magazine.

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