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An estimated 60 to 70 percent of the foods on grocery store shelves contain ingredients developed with advanced biotechnology – a variety of techniques that are alternatively known as bioengineering, genetic engineering, and recombinant DNA engineering. Virtually every person in the United States has consumed such foods. However, many consumers don’t realize this, because labels on these products generally do not explain that biotechnology was used in their production.
Some consumers are becoming increasingly interested in learning about the “genetic status” of the foods they eat. With that in mind, Oregon citizens will vote in this year’s election on a ballot initiative (Measure 27) which purports to give consumers that information. Ballot Measure 27 would require special labeling on any food items produced, sold, or distributed in the state, if they contain or are derived from “genetically engineered” material. That labeling requirement would include bioengineered whole foods such as fruit and vegetables, processed foods with biotech ingredients such as corn sweeteners and soy oils, milk and meat from livestock fed bioengineered grains, even pet foods. Every farmed, food and beverage producer, restaurant, bakery, farm stand, grocery store, and convenience store in the state would have to comply.
Although the mandatory labeling of biotech products appears to be popular, it is a flawed idea. Food labels are a very important source of consumer information, so what goes on them is strictly regulated. Information on labels must not just be truthful, but also not misleading. Any mandatory label statement can make food products appear to be different in some important way from their counterparts without those statements.
Numerous scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Food Technologists, have found that biotechnology does not make the end products inherently different in any meaningful sense. In those few cases where bioengineered foods have been made different from their conventional counterparts in a way that relates to consumer health, existing government policy already requires them to be labeled to reflect those changes.
The above scientific bodies and many others have studied biotechnology and bioengineering and have found the techniques to be as safe as or safer than conventional breeding methods. Despite these assurances of safety, every bioengineering product on the market has nevertheless undergone more testing and government scrutiny than practically any other food product in history.
That is one reason why federal courts have ruled other biotech food labeling mandates, similar to Measure 27, to be unconstitutional. Several court decisions have agreed with existing government policy, finding that requiring all bioengineered foods to be labeled could mislead consumers into believing that there was an important difference between bioengineered and conventional foods, even though there is not. Courts have also ruled that mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods would be a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections, because neither private citizens nor businesses can be compelled to say or print things unless there is a legitimate reason for doing so. For the same reasons, Measure 27 is also likely to be found unconstitutional.
Importantly, Oregon Ballot Measure 27 cannot even promise to fulfill the basic objective of identifying “genetically engineered” foods so consumers can exercise choice. The measure actually defines many conventional breeding methods as “genetic engineering,” which means many non-genetically engineered farm products would have to be labeled as if they were. In the end, a “genetically engineered” label could be required for the vast majority of foods grown or sold in the state or Oregon, and consumers would not be able to rely on the mandated label statements to make accurate purchasing decisions.
Labeling all bioengineered foods would also be quite costly to producers and consumers. Complying with the overly broad requirements of Measure 27 would be expected to raise retail prices of food products by at least 9 to 10 percent for every food sold in Oregon grocery stores, restaurants, and elsewhere. In addition, according to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, the cost to enforce compliance – paid by Oregon taxpayers – would be more than $11.2 million per year, with additional start-up costs of over $6.3 million during the first year.
Though a labeling requirement cannot deliver real consumer choice, alternative avenues are already available to consumers. Food producers who purposefully do not use bioengineered ingredients – such as organic farmers, packagers, and retailers – are voluntarily providing information on product labels that let consumers avoid biotech-derived foods. Consequently, ordinary market forces have shown that a labeling mandate is not necessary to provide consumers with a real consumer choice – it is already available. If Oregon voters enact Ballot Measure 27 into law, it will serve to undermine, not enhance, consumer choice.