Consumers have the ability to attain a lot of
information about almost any item that is purchased by simply looking at the
label. Unfortunately, in the United
States this is not the case, in particular with genetically
modified foods. Ironically, when it
comes to an item of clothing, for example, a label can tell you the brand of
the item and what material was used to make it, among other details. But would it not be considered of greater importance
to know certain facts about what is going in the body? The importance of food
certainly outweighs that of clothing. Genetically
modified foods are not required to be labeled.
As a result, the
implementation of a regulation requiring the labeling of genetically modified
foods is necessary in the United States to provide awareness to consumers about
the foods they are purchasing and ingesting.
order to better understand this dilemma and its importance, one must first
understand what genetically modified (GM) foods are, what the current labeling
policy of GM foods is, and why they should be labeled. While there are reasons
to oppose the labeling of GM foods, there is definite rationale that supports
the stance as to why they should be labeled.
Once these facets are better understood, then one can assess the
situation 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 by
defining exactly what genetically modified foods are. According to Dr. James Maryanski,
Biotechnology Coordinator in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food
Safety and Applied Nutrition, genetically modified foods are food products that
are produced through modern methods of biotechnology such as recombinant DNA
techniques and cell fusion. These foods
emerge from research and development and are in our marketplaces today. They are also known as genetically engineered
foods or foods derived from biotechnology (Genetically
Engineered Foods par. 5).
The FDA is the governmental agency
that regulates foods (except most meats, which are regulated by the United
States Department of Agriculture), food additives, and feed. This also includes the labeling policies for
these items (What does the FDA Regulate?). Currently, the Food and Drug Administration
does not require food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods (Statement of Policy-Food Derived from New
Plant Varieties). This is primarily
due to the fact that in respects to the safety of consuming GM foods, the FDA
considers these safe to eat and not in any way less safe than crops produced by
traditional farming means. At this
point, no risk to human health has been assessed from genetically engineered
foods (MacDonald and Whellams 184-5).
Although GM foods have been deemed safe by the Food and Drug
Administration, their policy regarding GM foods also states that all breeding
techniques have the potential to create unexpected effects. These new plant varieties can cause
undesirable traits to be introduced along with the desired traits (Statement of Policy). When considering this, one must take into
account that it is difficult to trace long-term unexpected effects or
undesirable traits of GM foods if they are not properly labeled as such.
According to an article published by David
Pelletier (Associate Professor of Nutrition Policy at Cornell University) in
about the FDA’s regulation of genetically engineered foods, he argues that when
policies concerning the safety of the public are being written there is a
certain level of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability that
needs to be provided to the public. In
the case of the GM food policy the FDA did not consider this pattern and
instead surpassed its discretionary authority in many ways (581).
Professor Pelletier’s article states
that to begin with, the FDA did not publish a proposed version of the policy
beforehand neither did it seek public input.
Therefore, it could not attend to public concerns in the final
policy. Further, the FDA did not use a
scientific advisory committee or a public advisory committee in the development
of the policy. The final policy did not
counter the strong concerns that were communicated by several of its own
scientists and senior administrators. The
FDA also granted GM foods the same Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status
as whole foods. Granting GM foods this
status is inconsistent with the innovation of GM foods because the FDA
acknowledged that unintended compositional changes may occur and that the
methods available to test for these changes are limited (581). In granting GM foods GRAS status, the means
of testing methods and drawing conclusions from test results was also
drastically altered. Now, instead of
having open and transparent procedures that challenged or confirmed the GRAS
status of foods, the processes were replaced with closed and undisclosed
procedures that prevented any challenge by outside parties. In changing the procedure of challenging and
confirming GRAS foods, a huge gap was left where now there is a lack of
information and studies concerning GM foods, and if information exists, it is
not publicly available (582).
Most importantly, of all things
implemented with the GM food policy one thing was not included–mandatory
labeling of GM foods. This decision was
made despite the acknowledgement of the FDA that potential unintended
compositional changes could occur and that the testing of these changes would
now be severely limited. As a result,
the lack of labeling strictly limits the public, the FDA, or other governmental
agencies’ ability to identify unintended health effects. It makes it very difficult to hold food manufacturers
legally accountable for any health risks or damages to specific consumers. Lastly, it makes it nearly impossible to seek
changes in these regulations (Pelletier 582).
Public opinion polls in both North
America and Europe propose that the public strongly supports the labeling of
genetically modified foods. This has
caused frustration among many consumers because there appears to be a lack of
corporate and political responsiveness to the wants of the consumer regarding
this matter (MacDonald and Whellams 181).
When it comes to food, what consumers
want is important to food manufacturers because the consumer provides their
revenue. Top food companies such as
Nestle USA, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo make billions of dollars combined yearly
thanks to loyal customers who enjoy their products (Nestle USA, Kraft Foods,
PepsiCo, Inc.). These food manufacturers
have found comfort in the way things are, and may not have any desire to change
the current situation. Because the FDA
does not deem the labeling of GM foods to be of great importance, food
manufacturers do not feel any level of obligation to label their products
containing GM ingredients.
These leading food companies may even
oppose a regulation requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods due to
concerns about the costs of relabeling their current products containing
genetically engineered ingredients. Food
manufacturers should not be leery grow wearyof
this because research shows that new innovations in the food packaging and labeling
industry are reducing costs in food labeling.
Label suppliers, such as Valley Printing, are constantly seeking ways to
streamline printing jobs and save in costs, which in turn allows them to
transfer those savings to their customers.
By using the Kodak PREPS Imposition Software, their press runs are
optimized by allowing several jobs to be printed using a singular set up. This practice is called gang-run printing
Companies like Valley Printing are
going out of their way to bring the greatest satisfaction to their
customers. Their goal is to keep
customers by providing them with cost effective labeling techniques, as well as
expertise and insight that is up to date with food labeling policies. Scott Gibson, of Valley Printing’s digital
prepress department states, “We have on file the nutritional statements… We
make 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 Printing
said that they would update label printing presses and re-label foods that
required relabeling free of cost. This
would be done in an effort to keep their customers satisfied and as a result
continue business with them.
The reasons presented above appear to
be more than enough to counter any opposition regarding labeling costs, but in
fact most food companies are already incurring relabeling costs when exporting
certain foods that contain GM ingredients to other countries that do require
the labeling of such. A study conducted in
France by Guillaume Gruère found that due to the European Union’s required
labeling of GM foods in products, those
that were in their original packaging in English had an extra white label with
a list of ingredients in French (151).
This is the only way that those products manufactured by American food
companies can be sold in France or any European Union country (Andersen 139). If American food companies are already doing
this, it can not be too far from their reach to continue to do something that
is already being done abroad.
Concerns about costs of relabeling
are not the only ones that arise when observing this matter. There is also the worry that when a consumer
sees a label that reads “Genetically modified ingredients used” they will
automatically deter from purchasing that item (Hyun Soon Park and Young 52). This is not always the case, and it is
fallacious to assume that this is what will happen when studies demonstrate
contradictory results. In a study held
by the European Commission the results confirmed that most consumers do not
purposely avoid buying GM products even though foods that contain GM
ingredients are now labeled (GM Food
Label Not Deterring Consumers).
Labeling has been applied in various
forms to products in the past. These
include but are certainly not limited to nutritional facts on foods on
supermarket shelves and even fast food menus.
Although the consumer is now made aware of what the nutritional content
of their food is, sales of particular products show that they are not swayed
away from purchasing it. This is
especially true when it is something that they enjoy. An example of this occurred when the State
Restaurant Labeling Bill was implemented in 2003-2004. This bill required for fast food and chain
restaurants that had more than a certain number of stores in a particular state
that was under the Bill to provide mandatory nutritional information for
standard items on their menus and menu boards (State Restaurant Labeling Bill).
One could assume that the result of
this Bill was devastating to fast food chains all over the country. On the contrary, the chart below indicates that
companies, specifically McDonald’s, saw growth in their revenues, even after
the implementation of this Bill (McDonald
Corporation Revenue Growth).
Research shows that it is possible to
attain marketing strategies that will allow food manufacturers to maintain
their customer base, while still providing accurate information to them. It is a matter of thinking outside of the
box. A recent survey determined that the
way that labels are worded affect the consumer’s reaction to the product. When participants were exposed to labels that
read “genetic engineering” instead of “genetic modification” they showed higher
levels of perceived benefits, lower levels of perceived risk, more positive
attitudes, and higher purchase intentions toward the products. According to the results of this survey,
“engineering” labels are perceived as informative; on the other hand, “genetic
modification” labels are perceived as suspicious or risky (Hyun Soon Park and
Currently, 60-70% of the foods on
supermarket shelves contain at least one ingredient that was derived from
genetically modified seed (Heslop 204).
Whether or not there are risks or benefits from genetically engineered
foods, and regardless of whether there are substantial differences between
foods that are considered genetically modified and those that are not, the
consumer has the right to make a decision that is informed. In order for the consumer to make this type
of decision, foods containing GM ingredients must be labeled clearly (Heslop
Consumers have the right to choose a
product based on animal, environmental, and ethical reasons (Carlsson,
Frykblom, and Lagerkvist 153). Not
labeling GM foods have taken away the rights of the people to know information
and make self-governing choices (Proske 105).
In a country that is founded on the free rights of the people, such as
the United States, there should be a higher standard of maintaining those
rights, even the right to make informed choices about food. Implementing a new labeling policy for
genetically engineered foods, as well as providing more information to the
consumers about them will enable the public to make choices based on accurate
information, not on fear or reluctance of any kind.