To Label or Not to Label

posted in: Commentary | 2

If GE crops are considered safe by most scientists, why not simply label the produce from these crops and let people decide for themselves? Most people like to know what they are eating and make their own choices.

I am a label reader. If there is an excess of added sugar or too many ingredients with names that I don’t recognize then I don’t buy the product. Not all information, however, is useful.

A few months ago our local food coop began posting red “consumer alert” signs that say, “Conventional foods that contain corn, soy, or canola may be genetically engineered.” I find these signs more annoying than helpful. It is a little bit like the warnings posted on science textbooks in some states that say, “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact”.

Neither statement says anything informative about the state of our food nor the creation of our universe. With no specific hazards associated with GE foods or evolution, how can a consumer use these statements to make a more informed choice about the risk to their health or to their faith in God?

The National Research Council Committee states that attempts to assess food safety based solely on the process are scientifically unjustified. Rather than adding a general label about the process with which a plant variety was developed, it would make more sense to label food so that consumers are informed about what is actually in or on the food. But this, too, is not necessarily helpful. For some people it may be informative to read a label that says, “may contain traces of carbamate pesticides, which at high concentrations are known to cause death of animals” or “may contain trace amounts of purified Bacillus thuringiensis protein, which kill Leptidoptera (a class of insects).” But is it helpful to most consumers who are not familiar with the science?

Here is another example. If we carry forward with labeling the product, then organic produce treated with rotenone, a “natural” pesticide favored by some organic farmers, would need to be labeled with the following, “may contain trace amounts of rotenone–chronic exposure can cause damage to liver and kidney” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 1998). Organic super sweet corn would require this label: “Carries a genetic mutation induced by radiation mutagenesis, resulting in the presence of a mutant protein.” Organically grown papaya would need to be marked: “may contain vast amounts of papaya ringspot viral RNA and protein”.

These labels are so ominous that it is not likely that many people would feel comfortable eating these organic fruits and vegetables. Still, there is no evidence that any of these food products are hazardous. After all, we have been eating sweet corn and organic papaya safely for years.

It seems to me that if the labeling statement does not help with safety interventions or inform consumer choice, it does not serve the purpose. It only confuses and unnecessarily alarms people.

This is a repost from Tomorrow’s Table.

Follow Pamela Ronald:

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.