Biotech Food Labeling is Regulatory Overkill: Henry Miller Op-Ed in LA Times

Published in the Los Angeles Times

Published in the Los Angeles Times

October 27, 2000

Headline: Biotech Food Labeling is Regulatory Overkill


As Joe Six-pack guzzles a brew during the World Series, does he care what variety of yeast was used to make the beer or whether the fermentation was done in stainless steel or wood tanks? Should he? Should labels be required to tell him?


Of course not. But anti-biotech activists are demanding that the Food and Drug Administration require food labels that make as little sense. And now these radicals have friends in high places: Vice President Al Gore and his protege, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner.


In a "statement of priorities," Gore has promised to "commit to a mandatory labeling program for genetically engineered food" if he is elected president. On the CNN program "Worldview," Browner said, "We require food manufacturers to tell Americans how much fat, sugar, protein, carbohydrates are in a product. We require food manufacturers to tell Americans whether an ingredient is natural or artificial. So why not tell Americans whether the ingredients in their food are natural or genetically engineered?"


There are lots of good reasons. For a start, what does "natural" mean? The mutant peach we call a nectarine? The tangerine-grapefruit genetic hybrid we call a tangelo? Or how about the standard commercial varieties of wheat, which contain hundreds or even thousands of genes from distantly related wild grasses? In fact, mandatory labels would convey irrelevant information, imply incorrectly that the buyer needs to be warned of unspecified dangers, vastly inflate costs and reduce profits to everyone in the distribution pathway. And, they would reduce consumers' choices.


Britain's new mandatory-labeling law, touted by a senior regulator as "a question of choice, of consumer choice," has had the opposite effect. It sparked a stampede by food producers, retailers and restaurant chains to rid their products of all gene-spliced ingredients so they wouldn't have to introduce new "warning" labels and risk losing sales.


A broad scientific consensus holds that modern techniques of genetic engineering are essentially a refinement of the kinds of genetic modification that have long been used to enhance plants, microorganisms and animals for food. Because of the precision and predictability of the technology, the products of gene-splicing are even more predictable than–and as safe as–the genetically improved foods that have long enriched our diets, such as seedless grapes, sweet corn and high-yield grains. (Except for wild berries, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains that we eat have been genetically improved by one technique or another.)


Following long-standing precedents in food regulation, the FDA already requires that a food be labeled if it raises an issue of safety or appropriate usage–for example, if it contains a substance that is new to the food supply, an allergen presented in an unusual or unexpected way (such as a peanut protein transferred to a potato) or increased levels of toxins normally found in foods–or if there are changes in the levels of major dietary nutrients.


The FDA's current approach was upheld indirectly by a federal appeals court, which found in 1996 that there exists no consumers' "right to know" obscure information about food. That case involved a Vermont law requiring labeling of dairy products from cows treated with a gene-spliced protein to increase their productivity. "Were consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production methods," the court wrote. Some California activists have demanded labels to identify machine-harvested as opposed to handpicked tomatoes. Where will it end?


Just the possibility of consumers rejecting "produced by biotechnology" foods already has had repercussions. Take Mr. Six-pack's six-pack, for example. In North Dakota, which leads the nation in the production of barley for beer, the 1999 crop was the smallest in more than a decade, reduced by a fungal disease called scab. But following the example of Japanese brewers Kirin and Sapporo and American baby food manufacturers Gerber and Heinz, which have rejected gene-spliced ingredients in their products, U.S. brewers are reluctant to turn to gene-spliced, scab-resistant barley, which is under development. The result? Uncertainty about supplies, higher costs of production and scab-infested barley used for brewing, which gives beer an off taste.


If enough people really want to avoid gene-spliced food, niche markets will arise, as they have for kosher and organic products–assuming that consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods certified to be "gene-splicing free." No government mandate is needed.


Henry I. Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover, Institution. From 1989-93, he was director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology


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