Labeling GE foods has become a controversial issue and a number of states have proposed labeling laws. The issues involved in labeling are more complex than one might imagine (for an overview on labeling, see http://agribiotech.info/details/McHugen-Labeling%20sent%20to%20web%2002.pdf). In the United States, food labels reflect composition and safety, not the way the food is produced. Presently foods derived through biotechnology do not require labeling because they have been judged to have the same nutritional content with no changes in allergens or other harmful substances. Voluntary labeling for attributes other than allergens, nutritional or ingredient information must make true claims — if the labeling is false or misleading, the product is mislabeled. Some ingredients such as oils derived from biotech crops are identical to those from non-biotech crops, so labeling them as biotech would not really provide useful information on composition or safety.
If currently available biotech foods were to require labels, it would not be on the basis of nutrition or food safety, but on the way they were produced. Should the method of production require labeling? The US courts have ruled “no” because of the endless number of production practices that could be listed, with only arbitrary means to determine which production practices to include or not include. Conventionally produced agricultural products do not require labeling describing how they were produced. If a product is certified as organic it may be labeled as such for marketing purposes, but such a label does not mean that the product is safer to eat or that it was grown in a safer manner. It is estimated that if foods were certified to be biotech-free, it would increase the cost of the food because the product would have to be followed (traced) from the field to the market. The situation is far more complex if processed foods are to be certified. A processed food may contain dozens of ingredients and to certify it as biotech-free would require certification of each ingredient. It is unclear how biotech products would be segregated in a complex food product like pizza, and who would pay for the additional cost. In the cases of organic, kosher and halal, the consumer who chooses to purchase the specialty product bears the cost. If labeling of biotech foods were mandatory, all consumers would bear the burden. However, future biotech products that have improved nutritional value will have to be labeled as such. The FDA requires any food, including biotech foods, to be labeled if the food has substantial changes in its nutrient content, composition, or allergy-causing properties. On January 18, 2001, the FDA published voluntary guidelines on appropriate labeling as to whether foods have been developed using biotech.
From a federal regulatory standpoint, the fundamental question is whether or not labeling would help consumers make an informed choice about the safety or nutritional value of their foods. A number of consumer surveys in the US indicate that most consumers are not concerned about biotech foods. Of those consumers who want labeling, most indicate that the label alone would not provide enough information. Other public health professionals have expressed a concern that the cost to consumers does not outweigh the benefits of mandatory labeling — primarily because mandatory labeling of biotech foods would not include information on which transferred genes or gene products (proteins) were present. Current biotech foods contain extremely small amounts of the transferred gene or gene product. People and animals digest proteins from many food sources and all available evidence indicates foods derived from biotech crops are as safe to eat as foods from non-biotech crops.
Truth in marketing
The term “natural” is widely used in agriculture and food production, but requires close scrutiny. Scientists and others involved in the history of agriculture argue that the fruits, vegetables, grains and animal products we consume are not “natural” since they are the result of deliberate actions of people over thousands of years, rather than the result of nature. Also, “natural” seems to imply “safe,” but many “natural” plants, such as poison ivy, nightshade, and hundreds of others, contain chemicals that are hazardous to humans. The term “natural” is used more as a marketing strategy than as a guarantee of safety. “Natural” products pose safety concerns similar to those of synthetic products. In the end, each product should be evaluated for safety based on its own benefits and risks, not on whether it was “natural” or “man-made.”