Setting a Uniform Standard For Labeling

    Removing the Double Standard

    In recent months, I have given extra attention to the GMO and mandatory labeling debate in a sincere attempt to have an objective understanding of the issues. Reflecting the desire of the growing number of consumers who wish to consume safe pure food, supplements, personal care and household products to protect human health and environment, the issue of labeling seems to be a straightforward one.

    The History of Labeling

    In United States, food labeling dates back to colonial times. Ingredient transparency and sanitation were the main issues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was founded for "consumer protection as applied to food, drugs, cosmetics and other products." To avoid food poisoning, the FDA passed various laws including those that condemned statements on a product label that might mislead or deceive consumers. Labeling laws grew over time and country-of-origin labels were required by law. Manufacturers were required to list all additives on the label so that consumers knew exactly what they were buying. Addressing environmental concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency was alsoGMO labeling GE founded to protect human health and the environment.

    Why Use Labels?

    If we think about it, every single thing we buy has a label (i.e., any commodity sold in the United States today has to have a label delineating the contents). Informed consumers read labels before they make a purchase and generally tend to avoid products containing harmful components. So for example, if you bought a lightbulb and it contained explosives that were unlabeled, would you feel safe about buying lightbulbs? Or, would you prefer that the industry conformed to a standard that clearly assured the buyer of the safety of the product?

    Let's take another example. Clothing and textile fiber content also have to be fully and accurately labeled and such items are also required to state their country of origin. Certified organic or eco-friendly textile options are labeled as such. Thus far, there has been complete transparency in the conventional textile industry so that buyers can see if they are purchasing natural or synthetic fibers including the percentages of each component. If textiles contain recycled materials this is also clearly labeled.

    So what's the big deal if consumers and manufacturers and growers want to know if ingredients come from GE crops? Why is it different from any of the other commodities that we all commonly buy that do carry fully transparent labels listing every single contributing component to the product? Why are GMOs exempt from this universal requirement?

    In other words, why would there be an ingredient "blackout" or a double standard that suddenly makes one type of ingredient (i.e., ingredients from genetically modified sources) a secret? A mystery? And allow growers and manufacturers to be exempt from the long-time standards already set for labeling?

    This is important to consider not only for food products but also with regard to personal care, cosmetics, supplements and household products that commonly use food ingredients. Infant products and products affecting maternal health are also a major concern and issue.

    Uniform Standard for Labeling

    Now is the time to inquire, how exactly did this happen that one category of ingredient has been allowed to ignore the uniform standard for labeling, when no other types of ingredients can be hidden or not mentioned on product labels? The debate from this perspective moves away from whether GMOs are good for you or not. Or whether they are harmful for the environment or not. Or whether they are ethical or not. Or whether you want your children to eat genetically modified ingredients or be part of a massive involuntary science experiment or not. This is a labeling issue.

    In other words, the debate is not a debate, but simply a matter of compliance with long-time laws that are already on record and in place, which somehow the industry is managing to ignore or avoid or tiptoe through without compliance. Labeling laws require that every single ingredient in any product be labeled and clearly available at all levels of the supply chain and for consumers to read on the labels of products in the stores. Food labeling laws also require allergens to be clearly, fully and accurately labeled and GMOs may be an allergen issue. Hidden ingredients can cause confusing and mysterious health problems.

    About 90 percent of soy, corn and cotton planted in the United States are now genetically modified, a process that was initially developed with the intention of reducing pesticide use, increasing crop yield, and addressing world hunger. The debate goes on as to whether or not such crops are useful and effective or not.

    However, the main point of this article is to emphasize that no matter which side of the fence you are on about the good or the bad of GMOs, if labeling is the issue then what is being violated by making labeling voluntary rather than mandatory is that every product must obey uniform standards. Mandatory GMO labeling is a "standards" issue.

    Removing the Double Standard

    If every product produced is required by law to have a full list of ingredients and their sources on the label, then GMOs as an ingredient must be labeled. There must be equality for all ingredients used in every commodity. If fruit juice is listed, the source should also be listed (e.g., cherry, apple or grape). If a sweetener is listed, the source is listed (e.g., sugar beets, stevia, honey or cane sugar). If colors are used it is clear from the label whether the sources are artificial or all natural. What is being violated is that GMO growers and producers at all stages in the supply chain are not complying with labeling and ingredient standards and seem to think they are exempt in this category.

    This is the meaning of transparency. We don't sit down at a meal with a blindfold and begin to eat. We first look to see what is on the table and make a conscious choice as to which foods we wish to consume. Similarly, every product and commodity we choose, involves a choice.

    We don't take off on a long trip without a road map or a guide. We have to know clearly which route to take or we will not arrive at the proper destination. There can't be any mystery about it. Accurate ingredients labeling is simply a matter of providing accurate information necessary to make one's way through the myriad of products on the shelves and to ensure informed consumer choices.

    We can end the debate by simply requiring all producers to meet the uniform standards for accurate and complete labeling for every product in the market and throughout the supply chain.

    Simi Summer, Ph.D., is an organic advocate, independent researcher, educator, and free lance writer. She is a strong proponent of organic consumer education and informed consumer choices.



    Published on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 11/2/15