Labeling of genetically engineered food: U of I food scientist weighs in

From the U of I News Bureau

Editor’s note: Many U.S. states are considering legislation that would require manufacturers to label food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients. In a new paper, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology examined the legal and economic implications of mandatory process-based labeling. Bruce M. Chassy, a professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, is one of the co-authors of the paper. Chassy spoke recently with University of Illinois News Bureau News Editor Sharita Forrest about the issues surrounding mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Proponents of GMO labeling point out that 64 nations require food labels to disclose genetically modified ingredients. Are these countries’ regulations substantially different from what labeling proponents want from the U.S. food industry?

I think the motivations are the same in the U.S. and overseas — concerns about health risks. However, there is no scientific basis for believing that GMOs pose any increased health risks. In fact, there are reasons to believe that GMOs are safer than other crops. And that’s been the conclusion of four different studies that the U.S. National Academy of Science has done. Virtually every national science academy in every country has come to the same conclusion.

But there is commercial, political and ideological opposition to GMOs. People opposed to GMO crops claim that there is science behind their claims — there is not; however, there are companies that certainly stand to lose or gain markets by imposing labeling and regulations.

Our regulatory focus in the U.S. is on product safety. If there isn’t evidence or some scientific reason to be concerned, then we don’t label. When there is a material fact — such as a difference in safety or composition — that a consumer has a need to know, we have to inform them. And note that I didn’t say “a right to know” — it’s a need to know.

How many times have you bought a vegetable and the label said on it: “The seeds used to grow this vegetable were made by mutagenesis, or ionizing radiation, or selected from a bunch of mutants?” We don’t talk about how the seeds are made. We talk about whether the seeds are safe.

Very often in these other countries, they have parliamentary forms of government and a ruling coalition containing green parties opposed to GMOs. And they’re usually socialist and anti-capitalist. In most of these countries that have mandatory labeling, they also don’t grow GMO crops. The people who sponsor labeling legislation in the U.S. very clearly say that labeling GMOs is the first step and the most effective way of reaching their goal of getting GMOs out of the fields and off the market.

What would the consequences be on American agriculture if GMO crops were banned?

I don’t see how American agriculture could stop planting GMOs. More than 95 percent of soybeans, more than 90 percent of corn, and similar percentages of canola and cotton are GMOs. It’s simply because they’re better seeds. Farmers spend less and get more. They would have to be paid quite a bit more in order to make up for their losses for not planting GMOs.

Our study showed that in the event that farmers were forced to switch to non-GM crops, and we tried to make foods GMO-free, food prices would increase 15-25 percent — or more. Studies show that the increased productivity that the farmers get from GMO crops has helped keep food prices in check. Proponents of labeling claim that it doesn’t cost manufacturers anything — just pennies for the ink to print the information on the labels, but it’s consumers who will actually pay. Low-income families would be disproportionately affected because they spend larger percentages of their incomes on food.

Your report indicated that in 2013, Whole Foods Market initiated a policy that by 2018 all products containing GMO ingredients sold in their U.S. and Canadian stores have to be labeled accordingly. Do you see other retailers following suit?

Retailers are going to do anything they think will allow them to sell more higher-priced goods. The food industry works on a very small profit margin. The incentive is there for them to sell organic foods, natural foods and GMO-free foods — all of which cost more.

Walmart has said that it’s striving to be the leading seller of organic foods. In Home Depot’s garden section the other day, I found blueberry, blackberry and raspberry bushes that were labeled “non-GMO.” The funny thing about that is that there are no such things as GM raspberry, blackberry or blueberry plants. But retailers are labeling them “non-GMO” because they think that will help them sell.

There’s a very interesting study that the International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducts every couple of years where they ask consumers questions about nutrition, health and their practices. One of the questions they ask is: “Is there any information that you think would be helpful, and that you’d like to see on food labels that is not presently provided?” When the IFIC asks the question that way and consumers aren’t prompted about GMOs, fewer than 1 percent ask for GMO labels. For most consumers, it’s not a burning issue, but if you turn the question around and ask them, “do you want to see GM foods labeled?” most consumers will say yes. Consumers see it as a free and easy thing to do, and why shouldn’t they have more information? It’s easy to want labels if you don’t understand the consequences.

Studies indicate that it really doesn’t make any difference to people what the labels say. If we labeled every product in the U.S. that contains genetically engineered crops, it might create a little ripple at the very beginning, but within weeks, people would be back buying those products and not caring one way of the other. It’s a principal issue, a cost issue and a legal issue, but not a practical issue for consumers.

Your paper made a distinction between consumers having a “right to know” versus a “need to know” whether foods contain GMO ingredients. What were your legal criteria?

Our regulatory focus in the U.S. is product safety. And we’ll allow manufacturers to even use secret processes to make things. In a lot of industries, proprietary knowledge is involved in how the product is made. The Food and Drug Administration regulates product safety, but doesn’t require the producer to disclose how a product is made.

The federal government has authority over labeling, and any mandatory labeling laws passed by states are likely to be struck down. After we finished the paper, Vermont did pass such a law, and it’s likely to be challenged in court.

You can’t have each of the 50 states having different laws about how food products are going to be labeled, or it’s going to become impossible for food manufacturers to distribute across the whole U.S.

The best focus, I think, is passing federal legislation, and national mandatory labeling legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress.

From the June 4-10, 2014, issue

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