Living With GMO Labels

LabelsFive words in small print “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering” are beginning to appear on food products across the US. This label complies with a 2014 law passed in Vermont to require foods that are made from genetically modified organisms. Large food processors and marketers are labeling all packages because it is more cost effective than producing a special label for products to be sold only in Vermont. Thus, the labeling will soon effect all US consumers, not just those who live in Vermont. Those not current on this controversy may wonder, “Why does this appear?” and “What does this mean?”

The label means that some genetically modified organism (plant or microbe) is incorporated into the product or was used to produce some of the product ingredients. The label provides information for those who wish to exclude GMO products from their diet. It tells the consumer something about how the food was produced, but not what is in it. The GMO component could be a BT protein that confers insect resistance or a protein that metabolizes glyphosate. The labeling is not yet that detailed. The vast majority of the people who reject GMOs reject all GMOs, the specifics of the modification are not important. This makes labeling simpler.

What does the label mean for the majority of consumers who don’t worry whether they eat GMO food or not? Perhaps the best way to think of it is to compare it to an “organic” label or a “kosher” label. The kosher label (a U inside a circle) is seldom recognized by those who do not restrict their diet to kosher foods. However, those who desire a kosher diet recognize the symbol and appreciate the information. The same holds for the USDA organic label.  It means the food was produced according to organic standards as defined by the USDA.

The rest of us who do not restrict our diet but are concerned about the content may find the nutritional labels more relevant. The nutritional labels identify the ingredients and are important in determining nutritional components of the food. The nutritional label is the most useful information for determining the health risk of a product especially those with food allergies.

I can now know the ingredients in sugar coated, chocolate coated, peanut candies. Since I don’t have food allergies, I have no substantial health concerns. I also note that the candies are Kosher and they are “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering”. Does having this information affect my decision whether or not to purchase them? That is the value judgement all consumers will need to make.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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