Within the food industry, there is no issue as challenging, divisive and confusing as food labeling. The issue has been further clouded by recent attempts to pass state and local laws calling for labels on foods with ingredients developed through biotechnology, regardless of the actual impact on the quality, safety or nature of the food product.
Farm Bureau supports the bipartisan Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which reinforces both the standards and authority of the Food and Drug Administration in regulating GMO labeling. The bill (H.R. 1599) would set forth national standards relating to labeling foods derived from biotechnology, and would preempt any state or local labeling requirements. H.R.1599 also charges the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service with creating protocol and labeling standards, similar to those used for organics, to identify and market products as non-GMO.
The FDA’s food labeling guidelines are designed to provide information to help consumers make healthy and safe food choices. This proposed bill would reinforce the existing requirements applied to labeling food products derived from plants developed through biotechnology. FDA generally regulates the final product, not the process, of plant genetic modification. Contrary to activist claims, FDA already requires labels for any food product that has been materially changed, regardless of whether it comes from conventional or biotech plant breeding. For example, foods must be labeled if ingredients contain proteins from the most common allergens, or when there are genetic differences in nutritional content.
FDA rules don’t allow labels that imply or suggest something misleading about the makeup of the food, if not backed by facts. Labeling foods solely because they were developed through biotechnology misleads consumers into thinking that the product is somehow less safe.
Still, activist groups continue to push for mandatory labeling laws at state and local levels. As many as 175 such laws have been introduced in more than 30 states during the past two years. This patchwork of labeling laws is costly to farmers, processors, retailers and consumers. Studies have shown that additional costs could range from $500 to $1,500 per year per family: This would hurt most household budgets and potentially devastate low-income families.
Consumer demand could also change as a result of misleading labels: This would pile on costs as productivity would drop. Significant environmental gains might also be erased, as farmers would be forced to move away from growing biotech crops. Since 1996, biotechnology has helped farmers add 110 million tons of soybeans and 195 million tons of corn to the world’s food supply, while reducing the use of pesticides by 1.2 billion pounds.
Whether or not consumers want to know if their food is produced using biotechnology is still unclear. Some studies show that consumers want biotech labeling. Others show that biotech is not a factor in purchase decisions, especially in comparison with price, taste, appearance, nutrition, convenience and other factors. Do labels have serious impact on choices consumers make? The results from behavioral studies are inconclusive, due to the disparity in how consumers interpret current nutritional label information.
Agriculture biotechnology is still a young industry. So far, the most significant advances provide benefits that consumers don’t readily relate to. Developments on the horizon may bring more marketable consumer benefits, like reduced trans fats, improved vitamin content, and lowered risk of carcinogens and foodborne illness.
Currently, consumers can choose among a variety of foods from conventional to organic. These options and voluntary labeling meet the demand of consumers without imposing added costs on everyone. While labeling regulations ultimately may need to evolve, H.R.1599 protects the safety and availability of the food supply, at prices most consumers and taxpayers can afford.
Robert Giblin writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.