Altered food labels don't promote choice

February 23, 2000|By Henry I. Miller

IT MAY SEEM incongruous in our so-called Information Age -- where data and opinions are now ubiquitous and the "right to know" is synonymous with consumer democracy -- but some consumer information is so incomplete and distorted as to mislead rather than inform. Take the issue of food labeling for genetically altered crops, where a campaign supposedly being waged on behalf of consumers' right to know may well diminish our freedom of choice, not enhance it.

The Greens who propose mandatory labeling for genetically altered foods talk nobly about the consumer's "right to know." Let consumers know what's in their breakfast cereal, and let them make their own choices, goes the argument. That sounds good, even libertarian, but the antibiotech crowd has shown they're not really interested in freedom of choice.

These people want nothing less than to shut down gene-spliced agriculture, to deprive farmers of the choice of environmentally friendly gene-spliced seeds, and consumers of more nutritious and safer foods. If they get their mandatory food labels, they just might succeed.

Such labels would convey irrelevant information, imply incorrectly that the buyer needs to be warned of unspecified dangers, inflate the costs of production, punish everyone in the distribution chain and actually hurt nature by forcing more pesticide use and more cultivation of farmland.

But you wouldn't know this from the uproar over "Frankenfoods" that has carried over from Europe to the United States and is now the basis for noisy public hearings, street protests such as those at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and even potential ballot initiatives.

Britain's new mandatory-labeling law, touted by regulators as fostering 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 plaster warning labels on their products. The need to segregate gene-spliced foods, especially the thousands of processed foods that contain small amounts of derivatives of corn or soybeans, would raise production costs in a low-profit-margin sector. A 1994 analysis by the California Department of Consumer Affairs predicted that "while the American food-processing industry is large, it is doubtful that it would be either willing or able to absorb most of the additional costs associated with labeling biotech foods." Much easier to eliminate gene-spliced crops.

Because of the precision and predictability of the technology, the products of gene-splicing are even more predictable and safe than the genetically improved foods that have long enriched our diets, such as seedless grapes, tangelos (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), nectarines (a mutant variety of peach) and high-yield grains. Except for wild berries, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains that we eat have been genetically improved by some technique.

The Food and Drug Administration already applies extra scrutiny and requires labeling when safety-related issues are raised: an ingredient that is completely new to the food supply, an allergen presented in an unusual or unexpected way (for example, a peanut protein transferred to a potato), changes in the levels of major dietary nutrients or increased levels of toxins normally found in foods.

But what about the people's right to know? A federal appeals court, invalidating a Vermont law that required milk labels to disclose the use of bovine somatotropin, found no such right, and made this telling point: "Were consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production method." Good call. Some California activists have demanded labels to identify machine-harvested (as opposed to handpicked) tomatoes. Where will it end?

If large numbers of people really want to avoid gene-spliced food, niche markets will arise -- assuming that consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods certified to be "gene-splicing free," as they do for kosher, halal and organic products. If we're really interested in expanding consumer choice, let's use the market, not government mandate.

Henry I. Miller is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View" (R.G. Landes Co., 1997).

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