Commentary: GM Foods: Why Fight Labeling?

By Julie Forster

Should consumers have a right to know whether their foods contains genetically modified ingredients? Donna Harris thinks so. The Portland mother of two is the driving force behind an Oregon ballot initiative that, if passed on Nov. 5, would require food companies to clearly label any product sold or produced in the state that contains GM ingredients. "It wasn't the fact that these foods were on the market, but that they were on the market without consumers' knowledge," Harris asserts. "That makes people mad."

If the Oregon initiative passes, it could provide ammunition to proponents aiming for similar measures in other states. Already, efforts are underway to get the issue on the 2004 ballot in California, a state that's often the bellwether for the rest of the nation. Labeling proponents in Colorado, Vermont, and Washington are closely watching the Oregon vote as well.

Hoping to get ahead of what it fears could become a national trend, the food and biotech industries are rolling out the heavy artillery to stop Oregon's Measure 27. Worried that such labeling could cause consumers to reject genetically modified food, a coalition of farmers, biotech companies, and foodmakers has spent $5.2 million since July in a lobbying effort to defeat the initiative.

That's shortsighted. The food industry would be better off educating the public about the safety and benefits of genetic modification. Their fear of a labeling law only means they have done a lousy job so far.

The use of genetically modified ingredients in U.S. packaged food hasn't yet caused a consumer backlash. Many Americans don't know or don't care that, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, 70% of packaged-food products in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients. While critics complain that insufficient testing has been conducted, both the Food & Drug Administration and the World Health Organization say there is no evidence that such food is unsafe.

So why are these industries spending millions to control the outcome of an issue that isn't even top-of-mind for much of America? The food and biotech companies say they're against labeling because it would cost too much to carry out in one state. Their real reason appears to be the fear that calling attention to the widespread presence of genetically modified food will cause U.S. consumers to wonder if such food is safe. The label "would misleadingly appear to be meant as a warning," says Pat McCormick, spokesperson for Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law. Perhaps, but by blocking grassroots attempts to put advisory labels on food, the food and biotech industries look as if they have something to hide.

Instead, their money would be better spent educating Americans on the benefits of genetically modified food. In coming years, scientists will be able to tweak crops to add nutritional value. One example: cooking oil with 10 times as much immunity-boosting Vitamin E. Sure, some people will avoid such foods. But many, given the means to make an informed decision, will opt for genetically modified eats. That's what food companies should focus on.

Forster writes about the food industry from Chicago.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.