Consumers first understand what genetically modified (GM) foods

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Last updated: June 20, 2019

Consumers have the ability to attain a lot ofinformation about almost any item that is purchased by simply looking at thelabel.  Unfortunately, in the UnitedStates this is not the case, in particular with geneticallymodified foods.  Ironically, when itcomes to an item of clothing, for example, a label can tell you the brand ofthe item and what material was used to make it, among other details.

  But would it not be considered of greater importanceto know certain facts about what is going in the body?  The importance of foodcertainly outweighs that of clothing.  Geneticallymodified foods are not required to be labeled. As a result, theimplementation of a regulation requiring the labeling of genetically modifiedfoods is necessary in the United States to provide awareness to consumers aboutthe foods they are purchasing and ingesting.              Inorder to better understand this dilemma and its importance, one must firstunderstand what genetically modified (GM) foods are, what the current labelingpolicy of GM foods is, and why they should be labeled.  While there are reasonsto oppose the labeling of GM foods, there is definite rationale that supportsthe stance as to why they should be labeled. Once these facets are better understood, then one can assess thesituation and obtain a solution in which the policy makers, food manufacturers,and most importantly, the consumers can reach a consensus.  It is important to begin bydefining exactly what genetically modified foods are.  According to Dr.

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James Maryanski,Biotechnology Coordinator in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for FoodSafety and Applied Nutrition, genetically modified foods are food products thatare produced through modern methods of biotechnology such as recombinant DNAtechniques and cell fusion.  These foodsemerge from research and development and are in our marketplaces today.  They are also known as genetically engineeredfoods or foods derived from biotechnology (GeneticallyEngineered Foods par.

5).      The FDA is the governmental agencythat regulates foods (except most meats, which are regulated by the UnitedStates Department of Agriculture), food additives, and feed.  This also includes the labeling policies forthese items (What does the FDA Regulate?).

  Currently, the Food and Drug Administrationdoes not require food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods (Statement of Policy-Food Derived from NewPlant Varieties).  This is primarilydue to the fact that in respects to the safety of consuming GM foods, the FDAconsiders these safe to eat and not in any way less safe than crops produced bytraditional farming means.  At thispoint, no risk to human health has been assessed from genetically engineeredfoods (MacDonald and Whellams 184-5).

 Although GM foods have been deemed safe by the Food and DrugAdministration, their policy regarding GM foods also states that all breedingtechniques have the potential to create unexpected effects.  These new plant varieties can causeundesirable traits to be introduced along with the desired traits (Statement of Policy).  When considering this, one must take intoaccount that it is difficult to trace long-term unexpected effects orundesirable traits of GM foods if they are not properly labeled as such.   According to an article published by DavidPelletier (Associate Professor of Nutrition Policy at Cornell University) inabout the FDA’s regulation of genetically engineered foods, he argues that whenpolicies concerning the safety of the public are being written there is acertain level of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability thatneeds to be provided to the public.

  Inthe case of the GM food policy the FDA did not consider this pattern andinstead surpassed its discretionary authority in many ways (581).  Professor Pelletier’s article statesthat to begin with, the FDA did not publish a proposed version of the policybeforehand neither did it seek public input. Therefore, it could not attend to public concerns in the finalpolicy.

  Further, the FDA did not use ascientific advisory committee or a public advisory committee in the developmentof the policy.  The final policy did notcounter the strong concerns that were communicated by several of its ownscientists and senior administrators.  TheFDA also granted GM foods the same Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) statusas whole foods.  Granting GM foods thisstatus is inconsistent with the innovation of GM foods because the FDAacknowledged that unintended compositional changes may occur and that themethods available to test for these changes are limited (581).

  In granting GM foods GRAS status, the meansof testing methods and drawing conclusions from test results was alsodrastically altered.  Now, instead ofhaving open and transparent procedures that challenged or confirmed the GRASstatus of foods, the processes were replaced with closed and undisclosedprocedures that prevented any challenge by outside parties.  In changing the procedure of challenging andconfirming GRAS foods, a huge gap was left where now there is a lack ofinformation and studies concerning GM foods, and if information exists, it isnot publicly available (582).

  Most importantly, of all thingsimplemented with the GM food policy one thing was not included–mandatorylabeling of GM foods.  This decision wasmade despite the acknowledgement of the FDA that potential unintendedcompositional changes could occur and that the testing of these changes wouldnow be severely limited.  As a result,the lack of labeling strictly limits the public, the FDA, or other governmentalagencies’ ability to identify unintended health effects.

  It makes it very difficult to hold food manufacturerslegally accountable for any health risks or damages to specific consumers.  Lastly, it makes it nearly impossible to seekchanges in these regulations (Pelletier 582).Public opinion polls in both NorthAmerica and Europe propose that the public strongly supports the labeling ofgenetically modified foods.  This hascaused frustration among many consumers because there appears to be a lack ofcorporate and political responsiveness to the wants of the consumer regardingthis matter (MacDonald and Whellams 181).   When it comes to food, what consumerswant is important to food manufacturers because the consumer provides theirrevenue.  Top food companies such asNestle USA, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo make billions of dollars combined yearlythanks to loyal customers who enjoy their products (Nestle USA, Kraft Foods,PepsiCo, Inc.).  These food manufacturershave found comfort in the way things are, and may not have any desire to changethe current situation.

  Because the FDAdoes not deem the labeling of GM foods to be of great importance, foodmanufacturers do not feel any level of obligation to label their productscontaining GM ingredients.  These leading food companies may evenoppose a regulation requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods due toconcerns about the costs of relabeling their current products containinggenetically engineered ingredients.  Foodmanufacturers should not be leery grow wearyofthis because research shows that new innovations in the food packaging and labelingindustry are reducing costs in food labeling. Label suppliers, such as Valley Printing, are constantly seeking ways tostreamline printing jobs and save in costs, which in turn allows them totransfer those savings to their customers. By using the Kodak PREPS Imposition Software, their press runs areoptimized by allowing several jobs to be printed using a singular set up.  This practice is called gang-run printing(Casey 46).  Companies like Valley Printing aregoing out of their way to bring the greatest satisfaction to theircustomers.

  Their goal is to keepcustomers by providing them with cost effective labeling techniques, as well asexpertise and insight that is up to date with food labeling policies.  Scott Gibson, of Valley Printing’s digitalprepress department states, “We have on file the nutritional statements… Wemake sure that that all of the labels that we print are as compliant as we can…We have been in the labeling business for fifty years” (Casey 46).  In a telephone interview, Valley Printingsaid that they would update label printing presses and re-label foods thatrequired relabeling free of cost.  Thiswould be done in an effort to keep their customers satisfied and as a resultcontinue business with them.

The reasons presented above appear tobe more than enough to counter any opposition regarding labeling costs, but infact most food companies are already incurring relabeling costs when exportingcertain foods that contain GM ingredients to other countries that do requirethe labeling of such.  A study conducted inFrance by Guillaume Gruère found that due to the European Union’s requiredlabeling of GM foods  in products, thosethat were in their original packaging in English had an extra white label witha list of ingredients in French (151). This is the only way that those products manufactured by American foodcompanies can be sold in France or any European Union country (Andersen 139).  If American food companies are already doingthis, it can not be too far from their reach to continue to do something thatis already being done abroad.Concerns about costs of relabelingare not the only ones that arise when observing this matter.  There is also the worry that when a consumersees a label that reads “Genetically modified ingredients used” they willautomatically deter from purchasing that item (Hyun Soon Park and Young 52).

  This is not always the case, and it isfallacious to assume that this is what will happen when studies demonstratecontradictory results.  In a study heldby the European Commission the results confirmed that most consumers do notpurposely avoid buying GM products even though foods that contain GMingredients are now labeled (GM FoodLabel Not Deterring Consumers).  Labeling has been applied in variousforms to products in the past.  Theseinclude but are certainly not limited to nutritional facts on foods onsupermarket shelves and even fast food menus. Although the consumer is now made aware of what the nutritional contentof their food is, sales of particular products show that they are not swayedaway from purchasing it.

  This isespecially true when it is something that they enjoy.  An example of this occurred when the StateRestaurant Labeling Bill was implemented in 2003-2004.  This bill required for fast food and chainrestaurants that had more than a certain number of stores in a particular statethat was under the Bill to provide mandatory nutritional information forstandard items on their menus and menu boards (State Restaurant Labeling Bill). One could assume that the result ofthis Bill was devastating to fast food chains all over the country.  On the contrary, the chart below indicates thatcompanies, specifically McDonald’s, saw growth in their revenues, even afterthe implementation of this Bill (McDonaldCorporation Revenue Growth).  Research shows that it is possible toattain marketing strategies that will allow food manufacturers to maintaintheir customer base, while still providing accurate information to them.  It is a matter of thinking outside of thebox.

  A recent survey determined that theway that labels are worded affect the consumer’s reaction to the product.  When participants were exposed to labels thatread “genetic engineering” instead of “genetic modification” they showed higherlevels of perceived benefits, lower levels of perceived risk, more positiveattitudes, and higher purchase intentions toward the products.  According to the results of this survey,”engineering” labels are perceived as informative; on the other hand, “geneticmodification” labels are perceived as suspicious or risky (Hyun Soon Park andYoung 59). Currently, 60-70% of the foods onsupermarket shelves contain at least one ingredient that was derived fromgenetically modified seed (Heslop 204).

 Whether or not there are risks or benefits from genetically engineeredfoods, and regardless of whether there are substantial differences betweenfoods that are considered genetically modified and those that are not, theconsumer has the right to make a decision that is informed.  In order for the consumer to make this typeof decision, foods containing GM ingredients must be labeled clearly (Heslop206).  Consumers have the right to choose aproduct based on animal, environmental, and ethical reasons (Carlsson,Frykblom, and Lagerkvist 153).  Notlabeling GM foods have taken away the rights of the people to know informationand make self-governing choices (Proske 105).

 In a country that is founded on the free rights of the people, such asthe United States, there should be a higher standard of maintaining thoserights, even the right to make informed choices about food.  Implementing a new labeling policy forgenetically engineered foods, as well as providing more information to theconsumers about them will enable the public to make choices based on accurateinformation, not on fear or reluctance of any kind.   

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