Shoppers already have a choice regarding biotech foods

Consumers increasingly base food purchasing decisions on individual preferences about product content. For many, this means a focus on nutrition or fat. Others care more about production methods, such as whether a product is kosher, halal or organic. Some choices reflect concerns for personal health and well-being; others, subjective value preferences. In all cases, information on labels helps consumers select the items they prefer.

With some consumers now concerned about the “genetic status” of their foods, scores of food producers are supplying information that helps those who wish to avoid genetically engineered products. Today, there are many thousands of affirmatively labeled, non-biotech foods available in stores as varied as Whole Foods Markets and Wal-Mart.

From just 2000 to 2009, some 6,899 new food and beverage products were introduced in the United States with explicit non-biotech labeling. And groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Organic Consumers Association have created websites, print pocket guides, and even smart phone apps that direct purchasers to “biotech-” and “GM-free” products.

That market-driven approach is not enough for many biotechnology critics, who argue that a government mandate is needed to truly give consumers the choice they desire. Last year, a who’s who of organic food corporations and advocacy groups launched the “Just Label It” campaign to agitate for mandatory biotech food labeling. Another group has proposed a labeling initiative for California ballots in November.

Although many of these activists have called for greater regulation or bans, they insist that, at the very least, there ought to be a law requiring a label on products containing biotech ingredients. After all, they argue, shouldn’t consumers have the right to know what’s in their food? 

Consumers certainly have a right to ask for information about the products they buy and to choose those that most closely meet their needs or desires. That’s how our vibrant consumer products market works. But decades of sound public policy — not to mention the U.S. Constitution — have reserved government labeling mandates for information that has a material impact on consumer health and safety.

At least as safe or safer

Dozens of scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have found biotechnology to be at least as safe as and, in some cases, safer than conventional breeding. Biotech foods have nevertheless undergone more testing and government scrutiny than practically any other products in history. So, there is no scientific justification for mandatory labeling, which is why FDA doesn’t mandate blanket labeling of all bioengineered foods.

FDA’s policy requires specific labeling if, and only if, the composition of those foods differs significantly from their conventional counterparts. Material differences would include, among other things, the introduction of an allergen that is not present in the new variety’s conventional counterpart, a reduction or increase in nutrients, or even a change in the product’s expected storage or preparation characteristics.

It is the change itself that must be identified on labels, not the breeding method involved. After all, if you want to alert consumers to the presence of a potential allergen, telling them only that biotechnology was used to develop the plant or animal variety conveys no useful information.

This science-based labeling requirement is applied to all foods, whether they were developed through conventional breeding or more advanced genetic techniques. Thus, it is consistent with the broad scientific consensus that plants developed with new biotechnologies are not inherently more risky than those developed with conventional methods, and that regulation and labeling ought to be based on the specific characteristics of the products that could make them more or less safe, not how they were produced.

Public support a mile wide but an inch deep

The case for a labeling mandate rests entirely on public support that, as it turns out, might be a mile wide but only an inch deep. Look at any of the opinion polls touted on the Just Label It website, and you’ll find large majorities agreeing that biotech foods should be labeled. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll also find that these large majorities admit they know little or nothing about biotechnology in general or how bioengineered foods are regulated. 

Asking people to evaluate the merits of a proposed policy with little or no background knowledge can give a misleading picture of the public’s true attitudes. Ask the right question, though, and one finds broad support for the FDA’s current labeling policy. In a series of polls commissioned by the International Food Information Council, respondents were first read a summary of the FDA policy and then asked their opinion. In every one of the 14 surveys, conducted between 1997 and 2010, a majority of respondents agreed that FDA has chosen the right approach.

Why then are critics so adamant about labeling? And why does the organic food industry, which makes billions of dollars peddling affirmatively labeled non-biotech products, keep funneling money into these campaigns? The answer seems to be that forced labeling acts to stigmatize products made with biotechnology and producers who use it. 

Altering thousands of product labels isn’t cheap, but the biggest cost comes from the huge burden of carefully monitoring and tracing, from farm to fork, every single ingredient in tens of thousands of packaged foods. Perhaps more important, from the activists’ perspective, regulatory stringency serves as an unmistakable signal to consumers that there is something fundamentally different and worrisome about biotechnology.

Critics have scared many consumers with claims that biotech methods could introduce new allergens or toxins into the food supply, unnaturally move genes across some supposed “species barrier,” or make other unpredictable changes in a plant’s native DNA. A mandatory label would make it easier to say, “See! Even the government thinks these products are different enough that you should worry about them.” 

What about other technologies?

What labeling advocates don’t say is that every one of the risks they associate with biotechnology is also present – often to a greater degree – with conventional breeding. Though most consumers imagine that conventional plant breeding entails little more than mating one variety with another and selecting the best seeds for propagation, scientists have been using other, far more (or, depending on one’s view, less) sophisticated techniques since the dawn of the 20th century. 

In nature, plant pathogens commonly cross the so-called species barrier and insert their viral or bacterial genes into a plant’s DNA. A typical mouthful of broccoli or cauliflower, for example, exposes consumers to millions of viral DNA particles. Breeders too, long ago discovered how to forcibly mate plants of different species, and even of different genera, often to produce entirely new species that do not exist in nature. These “wide-cross” hybrids, which include dozens of common wheat, rice, and other varieties, frequently are produced by artificially mating food crops with wild plants known to contain potent natural toxins, carcinogens, and anti-nutrients. 

Arguably the most significant sea change in plant breeding came in the 1930s, when scientists began intentionally mutating crop species with ionizing radiation and caustic chemicals to randomly scramble the plants’ DNA in unpredictable ways. Mutation breeding has been in common use since the 1950s, and more than 2,250 known mutant varieties have been bred in at least 50 countries, including the United States. A careful search would probably find several of these varieties or their progeny labeled as “organic.”

Yet today, as anti-biotech activists condemn the bioengineered herbicide-tolerant crops produced by companies such as Monsanto and DuPont, multinational chemical giant BASF is breeding herbicide-tolerant crops using mutation techniques. But because the latter are considered products of “conventional” breeding, they are subject to no special regulation, and the self-appointed guardians of our food supply don’t seem to care.

Of course, there is no reason to worry about mutant or wide-cross varieties because the basic testing done by breeders to ensure consumer and environmental safety is fairly robust. But their inherent imprecision and unpredictability is why scientists agree that biotechnology is at least as safe as, and generally safer than, conventional breeding. How then can labeling advocates justify singling out biotech foods, and only biotech foods, for special labeling? Why do consumers have a right to know about one but not the other?

Consumer interest not enough

Fortunately, previous attempts to mandate biotech labeling in the U.S. have failed, either at the ballot box or in court. Although commercial advertising is afforded less protection than political or scientific speech, the U.S. Constitution forbids commercial speech regulation that does not directly serve a pressing governmental need. 

In striking down a Vermont statute that required the labeling of milk from cows treated with a biotech growth hormone, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, “[W]ere consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could force manufacturers to disclose.” In the absence of “some indication that this information bears on a reasonable concern for human health or safety or some other sufficiently substantial governmental concern, the manufacturers cannot be compelled to disclose it.”

Neither consumers nor governments have a right to force producers to disclose information about their products that is irrelevant to health, safety, or some other important interest. Singling out one of the safest, and certainly the most heavily regulated, breeding method in order to stigmatize it simply does not qualify. It is also unnecessary, because competitive market pressures have already created a vibrant and expanding market for voluntary labeling options that gives consumers the choice many seem to want.