Should GMO Foods Be Labeled?

Do consumers have a right to know when they're buying GMO foods — and if not, why not?
Shutterstock Learn more about the labeling issues behind GMOs

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) for more.

When you make your grocery list, you usually write down general items. Apples, snacks, corn, cereal... but when it comes time to actually choose a cereal or snack, arbitrary selection just won’t do. From moms who worry about what their kids are eating to health-conscious consumers, a simple flip of the box and a few numbers on the nutrition label could help make your decision for you. Whether you're trying to stick to a diet or have other health concerns, reading the label allows to you choose what's best — or ata least what you think is best — for your body. If you find high fat content, aspartame, or a few too many calories, you have the option of switching to something else. However, if you happen to think that genetically modified food isn’t something you want to consume, you could be out of luck.

Currently, there is no federal law in the United States that requires genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. According to the Federal Drug Administration, there is in effect no significant difference between “natural” food and bioengineered food.

According to a Draft Guidance the FDA put out in regards to voluntary labeling, “The 1992 policy does not establish special labeling requirements for bioengineered foods as a class of foods. The policy states that FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires the FDA to identify a food label as misleading if it omits “material” information, but it considers “material” matters to be those discernible by taste, smell, or other senses. Genetically modified foods exhibit none of these physical differences, so no problem.

Despite the fact that most Americans in polls vote regularly in favor of GMO labeling — including 90.6% of the respondents to our own survey — the FDA's policy still stands.
Some local governments have tried to enact measures of their own. Take Proposition 37 for example. This controversial California bill was proposed to prevent companies from using the term “natural” on GMO products, and to require that all GMO food was so labeled. Some California residents supported the proposition, including a number of politicians and doctors. Others believed that the proposition would pointlessly ban “completely safe” products and would simply raise prices . Ultimately the proposition was defeated. Currently, only Connecticut and Maine require labeling of GMO foods, though many states are now reportedly considering putting labeling laws on their ballots. “There is little anyone can do to protect themselves without labels” — Nicole McCann and Elizabeth O’Connell of Green America

“Without labels, there is absolutely no way to tell if your food has been modified,” says Nicole McCann and Elizabeth O’Connell of Green America, a non-profit organization that has successfully worked to get companies to self-label and/or stop using GMOs through their GMO Inside program.  “There is little anyone can do to protect themselves without labels,” they go on to say. “All consumers can do aside from avoiding non-processed foods is look for the non-GMO label on their foods.”

But some, like Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert, feel that labels could be a part of a fad more so than a necessity. “I do believe that all shoppers have the right to know what is in their foods, however, at this point in time it becomes too much of an opportunistic marketing device,” says Lempert. “[A good] example is Cheerios - with all the PR and hype that they are going to be non-GMO, what isn’t being discussed is that the major ingredient in the cereal is oats — and there is no such thing as GM oats. Yes the sugar and cornstarch may be GMO — but shoppers want to know about the primary ingredients — and this is misleading consumers to think that the major ingredient is being changed.”

 According to Thomas Henscher, Executive Director, Commercial Acceptance, for the Monsanto Company companies like his feel that the GMO labeling are a threat.

“We oppose initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks,” he says“Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”

If GMO foods aredeemed safe by the FDA, is there really much to be concerned about? “I can think of several concerns,” says author Marion Nestle and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition “Monoculture, monopoly ownership, and the need for increasingly toxic pesticides due to weed resistance. And the fact that they are not labeled and consumers have no choice.”

And isn’t that what this entire debate is about, the right to choose? 

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