by Alison Van Eenennaam
The CAST Issue paper 54 entitled “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods in the United States” was released April 28. For those of you unfamiliar with CAST, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (http://www.cast-science.org), it is a non-profit organization composed of scientific societies including ASAS, individual, student, company, nonprofit, and associate society members. CAST assembles, interprets, and communicates credible, science-based information using volunteer scientific experts as authors and reviewers.
The task force charged with authoring this paper was Alison Van Eenennaam (Chair), an animal biotechnology Cooperative Extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, Bruce M. Chassy, a food science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, an economics professor at University of Missouri, Columbia, and lawyer Thomas P. Redick from the Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, LLC.
Although genetically engineered (GE) products are used around the world, their use in food products has become a contentious issue for some consumers. A key point in the resulting debate centers on proposals regarding the mandatory labeling of GE food. Many U.S. states are considering legislation to mandate such labels. The CAST publication examines arguments for and against labels, the legal ramifications and the costs involved with mandatory GE process-based labeling, and experiences in countries that have implemented mandatory labeling.
Proponents of mandatory GE labeling cite the right to know what is in their food as an important attribute of a democratic society. Opponents think that such a label will increase the cost of food and confuse consumers with no corresponding improvement in human health or food safety. Seemingly contradictory studies are cited to support opposing views and informed discourse about this emotional issue is hard to find. Mandating process-based food labeling is a very complex topic with nuanced marketing, economic, and trade implications depending on how the labeling laws are written and how the market responds.
There are three main arguments that are often advanced when discussing mandatory process-based labeling of foods containing ingredients derived from GE crops, with the following pro and con positions:
- PRO: Polls show an overwhelming majority of people support mandatory labeling of GE foods when specifically asked whether “the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it’s been genetically modified, or ‘bio-engineered.’”
- CON: In unprompted polls in which participants are asked what additional labeling they would like to see on food, more than 99% of respondents do not volunteer a desire to see mandatory labeling of GE foods.
- PRO: People should have a choice regarding what types of products they purchase and consume. Many believe that this should include the choice to “vote with their wallets” about how the food was produced even if it does not result in any change or consequence for the food product itself.
- CON: U.S. consumers who want to avoid GE products already have that choice available through voluntary non-GMO and organic labeling. In countries that have implemented mandatory GE labeling, GE products have generally been removed from the market, so choice has been reduced.
Right to Know
- PRO: People have the right to know what is in their food. Mandated calorie and nutritional content panels on packaged foods are examples of labels to inform consumers about food composition.
- CON: The right to know what is in food is different than the right to know what processes were used in its production. Furthermore, this uniquely singles out GE technology—not other production methods and processes—for right to know.
Many state labeling initiatives suggest there are remaining food safety concerns about GE organisms and, therefore, mandatory labeling should be implemented. The authors of the CAST report review the peer-reviewed literature and the hundreds of independent studies that have determined that foods made using GE ingredients are safe. To date, no material differences in composition or safety of commercialized GE crops have been identified that would justify a label based on the GE nature of the product. Whereas this conclusion will not satisfy those who consider the insertion or manipulation of genes in a laboratory a material difference per se, the science of food safety does not support mandatory process-based labeling of GE food and, by extension, neither does the Food and Drug Administration.
The paper also discusses the legal issues associated with state laws requiring mandatory process-based GE labeling. Relevant law includes: the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution which forbids individual states from unduly burdening interstate commerce; the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Federal Preemption which requires that federal law prevails in any conflict with state law; and The First Amendment Protection of Commercial Speech which prohibits government compulsion of commercial speech unless the speech is factual, uncontroversial, and reasonably related to a legitimate government interest.
The potential economic impact of state and other initiatives that would mandate labeling for the presence of GE ingredients in foods has also been of much interest. Opponents of mandatory GE labeling schemes have argued that they would be very costly and that their costs would be paid by all consumers, including those who do not wish to avoid GE. Proponents have argued that the implied costs would be minimal. Although it is likely that mandatory GE labeling would increase U.S. food costs at some level, it is not possible to predict a priori the likely size of this increase. It will depend upon a number of factors including the way the law is written, the tolerance level of GE presence, choices made in the marketplace by suppliers and marketers, and what products are included in or exempted from labeling requirements. One important driver of additional costs will be an estimation of the share of the food market that might become non-GE, and the costs that would be incurred to procure ingredients and reformulate products. Over time, food prices would rise to cover the incremental costs of any mandatory GE labeling regime in the U.S. market. Regardless of the reason for price increases, elevating food costs have a greater impact on the poor as a proportion of their income.
The authors conclude the following:
- Domesticated crops and animals have been genetically modified in some way; there is no science-based reason to single out GE foods and feeds for mandatory process-based labeling. Wide-ranging evidence shows that GE technology is equally safe to conventional breeding.
- Mandatory labeling based on process abandons the traditional U.S. practice of providing for consumer food preferences through voluntary product differentiation and labeling (i.e., marketing and promotion of products with specific attributes).
- Market-driven voluntary labeling measures (e.g., organic, Non-GMO Project, Whole Foods initiative) currently provide consumers with non-GE choices in the U.S. marketplace.
- Current labeling authority is federal; state mandatory labeling laws may be invalidated for conflicting with preemptive federal authority and may also violate First Amendment rights. If courts invalidate such locally imposed laws, it may be seen that courts are thwarting consumer will. Litigation seems a likely outcome if states pass mandatory labeling laws.
- Labeling at the national level has trade implications and needs to be harmonized with international trade agreements that frown on mandatory labeling for a production process when there is no scientific evidence that the process relates to food safety.
- Mandatory GE labeling would increase U.S. food costs. The size of this increase will depend on choices made in the marketplace by suppliers and marketers, and what products are included in labeling requirements. If, as in other countries, sellers move to non-GE offerings in response to mandatory labeling, food costs could rise significantly and these increased costs would exact a greater burden on low-income families. If, on the other hand, food suppliers choose to label virtually all products as containing GE without testing or segregation, increases in costs might be minimal.
- Independent objective information on the scientific issues and the possible legal ramifications and economic consequences of mandatory GE food labels needs to be provided to legislators and consumers, especially in states with labeling initiatives on the ballot, to help move the national discussion from contentious claims and counterclaims to a more fact-based and informed dialog.
For a free download of Issue Paper 54 visit the CAST website @ www.cast-science.org