Hoover Daily Report

A Label We Don't Need

Monday, November 18, 2002

If you were designing a label to inform consumers that, for safety reasons, certain foods need to be cooked or handled in a certain way, what would it say? How about "Made in Brussels"?

No way, ridiculous and irrelevant, you say. Right on all counts. But that is tantamount to what the European Commission and parliament have decided to require for foods derived from organisms that have been genetically improved with the most precise gene-splicing techniques. This is public policy that puts politics and groundless fears ahead of science and common sense, and into conflict with more rational U.S. regulations.

Product labeling that conveys essential information is important, but compulsory labeling of gene-spliced foods is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it implies risks for which there is no evidence. Second, it flies in the face of worldwide scientific consensus about the appropriate basis of regulation—that it should focus on palpable risks, not the use of certain techniques. Third, it will push the costs of product development into the stratosphere. And fourth, the requirement constitutes a punitive tax on a superior technology.

The European Union (EU) is implementing labeling requirements for biotechnology that are more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or explosives than to long-shelf-life tomatoes and disease-resistant potatoes.

Those who advocate mandatory labeling for genetically altered foods invoke consumers' "right to know." Just inform them what is in their breakfast cereal and let them make their own choices, goes the argument. But experience argues otherwise: The United Kingdom's mandatory labeling law 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 introduce new "warning" labels and risk losing sales.

A broad scientific consensus holds that modern techniques of genetic modification are an improvement on the kinds of genetic modification that has long been used to enhance plants, microorganisms, and animals for food. Because of the precision and predictability of the technology, the products of the newest techniques are even more predictable than—and at least as safe as—the genetically improved foods that have long enriched our diets, such as sweet corn and high yield grains.

Following long-standing precedents in food regulation, the FDA requires labeling if any new food raises questions of safety, nutrition, or proper usage. There is, however, no requirement for disclosure of the use of particular techniques to make food.

The European-mandated need to segregate gene-spliced foods will raise production costs and pose a particular disadvantage to products in this competitive market with low profit margins. To maintain the accuracy of labels, gene-spliced fruits, vegetables, and grains will have to be segregated through all phases of production—planting, harvesting, processing and distribution—adding costs and compromising economies of scale.

If enough people want to avoid gene-spliced food, niche markets will arise without a government mandate, as they have for organic and kosher products. For the present, it appears that the EU's regulations on labeling deserve a label of their own: unscientific and anti-consumer.