Bring up genetically engineered foods, and most people focus on the obvious but most vexing questions: are they safe to eat? Or how might they make me sick? Such questions and the inability of current science to provide clear answers, have triggered a polarizing debate about labeling of a scale unprecedented in the history of food labeling. The result has been a slew of proposed state laws, international trade disputes, all mostly centering around the potential risks to human health.
But lost in the din of this raucous debate are many other, much less controversial reasons for GMO labeling that have long been the basis for labeling many other foods FDA mandated over the years, that came without international consumer campaigns and did not trigger multi-million-dollar anti-labeling lobbying efforts. In fact, many such requirements have more to do with protecting consumers from being misled about the quality and nature of food products than with preventing foodborne illness.
Food ingredient labeling requirements have been traced as far back as the 13th century, when King Henry III of England took action to require bakers to disclose when they mixed ground peas and beans into bread dough to save money on wheat. Breads made from wheat were marked with a “W” while those containing other products were marked with an “H” for household bread, which was served mostly by innkeepers.
The growth of new food processing and production methods through the 20th century triggered more requirements to help consumers navigate the array of new choices as items like dilute juice-flavored drinks were easily confused with fresh “natural strength” juices, and previously frozen or otherwise processed meats and vegetables were mistaken for fresh ones.
At times Congress stepped in, as in 1990 to mediate the question of how to label juice products. But usually, the question wasn’t whether to require such label distinctions, but how and to what degree.
Some GE labeling activists are at a loss to understand why labeling bread made with wheat that’s engineered to contain genes from other plant or animal species should be any less important than the 13th century requirement to label bread made with peas and beans instead of only wheat, or more recently required distinctions between fresh and frozen foods.
Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports argues this amounts to an unjustifiable double-standard against GMO food labeling. He reasons that GMO foods are far more clearly distinct from conventional foods, compared to frozen vegetables, for example, which are often genetically identical, and sometimes even nutritionally superior to their fresh counterparts.
“In terms of a FDA decision about labeling, this debate about how 'significant' the difference is should be irrelevant. If there is a documentable difference between two foods, or two processes, and consumers care about the difference, then under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act FDA has the authority to require labeling and should do so. It does not matter if it is a small difference or a large difference. Nor does it matter whether consumers are 'right' or 'wrong' to care about this difference,” Hansen says.
"The difference between frozen peas and fresh peas, one could easily argue, is much less than the difference between genetically engineered peas and conventional peas," continues Hansen. "The frozen and fresh peas can be genetically identical. The frozen peas may even be nutritionally superior, even as consumers choose fresh peas thinking fresh is better. Yet FDA appropriately requires labeling about the difference, and allow consumers to make their own choices about what to buy, even if those choices are a 'mistake,' leaving it to the marketplace to educate consumers about pluses and minuses of each type of product."
Kosher and Halal certifications, like GMO-free labels, are optional but long-protected distinctions that, unlike GMO labeling, amount to outright prohibitions on a whole category of ingredients. For example, in its ruling to require disclosure of the source of protein hydrolysates in foods, FDA stated, “the food source of a protein hydrolysate is information of material importance for a person who desires to avoid certain foods for religious or cultural reasons.”
Pork producers aren’t lobbying the U.S. government to stop Jewish and Muslim communities from labeling requirements which essentially ban pork products. Neither is the US government accusing these countries of creating unfair barriers to trade.
By contrast, on GM labeling, the US government, with heavy lobbying by Monsanto and other biotech giants, has done just that, for years actively attempting to prevent other countries from requiring GMO food labeling. So far, it's been largely unsuccessful, but its efforts have effectively blocked consensus needed to harmonize labeling requirements and other policies that would ease greater transparency and traceability needed to establish a minimum set of global safety standards for genetic engineering. And there is continued pressure to find other ways to stop mandatory GMO labeling, the latest being via negotiations in play for a proposed Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TFTA).
How the GMO debate plays out in coming years remains to be seen as more is learned about GMO foods and their safety and long-term environmental, economic and social impacts, and as more and more biotech products reach the market.
To date, more than 60 initiatives have been introduced in 20 states to either label or prohibit certain GE foods. Some, like those in Washington state last year and Colorado and Oregon earlier this month have already failed. Large amounts of food industry money were spent on ad buys in those races to confuse consumers.
But this past spring, Vermont passed a law that will require most genetically modified food products to be properly labeled by July 1, 2016 (dairy, meat, alcohol and food served in restaurants are exceptions). This law has already received backlash from companies and organizations that support the sale of GM products, including Monsanto.
Whether the growing number of state initiatives supporting GM labeling will ultimately succeed depends on how policy makers will view consumers’ right to eat foods untouched by gene guns and recombinant DNA. Importantly, both our politicians and consumers must be reminded that there’s a rich history of food labeling transparency to draw from, starting with the King of England’s 700-year-old bread labeling edict.