Why we need mandatory labeling of GMO products

The Whole Foods Market in Midtown New York is seen on June 16, 2017. 
Amazon is once again shaking up the retail sector, with the announcement Friday it will acquire upscale US grocer Whole Foods Market, known for its pricey organic options,  in a deal that underscores the online giant's growing influence in the economy. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

The conversation around genetic engineering and food is undermined by a lack of information that breeds confusion and distrust. Consumers feel misled. Scientists feel misunderstood. Public officials make flailing attempts to navigate the interests of both. Meanwhile, the companies that choose to play both sides take advantage of everyone — quietly adding genetically modified organisms (GMO) or ingredients made from them to some products and non-GMO labels to others.

Afraid of GMOs? Blame non-labeling
Genetically modified organisms are commonplace and are already present in many of the foods we eat — often, though not exclusively, in the form of genetically modified corn, soy, sugar beet, and canola oil. But as ubiquitous as they are, they’re shrouded in mystery. Across most of the United States, foods made with GMO ingredients don’t bear labels attesting to that. They don’t need to mention genetic engineering on the label or elsewhere. As a result, most of us don’t know how often we eat foods containing GMOs or their byproducts.

The consequences of this labeling asymmetry aren’t surprising: People are concerned about the safety of consuming foods that contain GMOs or their byproducts. Questions naturally arise like, “If GMOs are really safe, why do food companies keep hiding them from us?”

That questioning is exacerbated by the fact that obscurity-based questions about GMO safety are often conflated with actual concerns about GMO business practices. Issues like unsafe herbicide use and the ethics of human genetic editing are completely legitimate. But because these issues are often confused with questions about the safety of food made from genetically modified organisms, they make it easy to write off genetic engineering as altogether problematic.

It’s time to label GMOs

You might expect a company that creates GMO-based products would want the issue of labeling to disappear. We don’t. In fact, we support mandatory labeling of all GMO products.
Mandatory labeling is good for consumers because it will help them be fully informed and less confused when they consider buying GMO products. It is also better for the world, which can benefit from increased understanding and use of genetic engineering technology — technology that is already being developed to help us tackle problems like starvation, disease, and climate change.
Mandatory labeling will strip away the mystery. The confusion dominating the conversation will dissipate.

Labeling works only if it’s transparent

Vermont’s labeling law — by all accounts clear and simple in application — was a good start. It was my hope that it would be extended across the United States as part of a 2016 federal law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (which is part of Public Law 114-214). That federal law — effective this year — mandates disclosure of certain bioengineered foods under a final rule written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Equally worrisome is the rule’s definition of bioengineered (BE) products — its proxy term for GMOs. It is so lax that it allows thousands of products to avoid mandatory labeling even though they are genetically engineered by any popular definition of the term. Here’s an example: If the predominant ingredient in a product is egg, meat, or poultry, that product is excluded from the GMO labeling requirement even if all the remaining ingredients are genetically engineered.

Read the full article at STAT