JAMA Forum: Genetically Modified Food Labeling: A “Right to Know”?

Lawrence Gostin, JD (Image: Georgetown University Law Center)

Lawrence Gostin, JD (Image: Georgetown University Law Center)

For decades, small organic farmers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates have claimed the “right to know” what is in our food. They have expressed particular dismay that food labels fail to disclose that a product is or contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms. In such organisms, the genetic material “has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally… allowing selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another.” But large agribusiness has opposed labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) just as fiercely.

What could be wrong with transparency and disclosure? The answer is that there exists a scientific consensus that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption. Potential benefits of genetically modified crops include development of disease and drought resistance crops, decreased use of pesticides, more nutritious and tastier food, and food with longer shelf life. The benefits of GMO products are important in highly developed countries like the United States, but in lower-income countries whose people experience food insecurity—sometimes famine—it can be a matter of life or death. Consider “golden rice,” genetically modified to be enriched with vitamin A. This food has the potential to benefit poor African and Southeast Asian communities where rice is a dietary staple, but vitamin A-deficient children suffer from preventable blindness.

A recent flashpoint in the battle over GMO labeling occurred after Vermont enacted a tough GMO labeling mandate, with food companies threatening to stop selling their products in the state, rather than comply. The Vermont law pushed Congress to pass the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, signed by President Obama on July 29. The law preempts (supersedes) all state GMO disclosure laws, setting a uniform national labeling standard.

But it didn’t seem like a win for the Environmental Working Group and other consumer advocates. The federal law gives food companies considerable flexibility in identifying GMO ingredients: on-package text, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA)–approved symbol, or a Quick Response (QR) code (a barcode). The QR code option makes it hard for consumers to acquire the information, especially if they don’t have a smartphone or reliable Internet access. In other words, a law designed to advance transparency actually enabled opaqueness.

A Scientific Consensus

Genetically modified corn, cotton, and soybeans emerged on the US market in 1996. By 2012, GMO crops as a percentage of total crop plantings were about 88% for corn, 94% for cotton, and 93% for soybeans. Other GMO foods include tomatoes, potatoes, and squash.

After reviewing nearly 900 studies and other publications, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently found that GMOs were safe and did not harm the environment. Moreover, new techniques such as genome editing, blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, making reliable labeling regulation virtually untenable. The report called for regulation focusing on the attributes of crops rather than how they were created.

Medical, scientific, and public health organizations agree. In 2012, the American Medical Association said, “no scientific justification [exists] for special labeling of bioengineered foods,” and “voluntary labeling is without value” absent intense consumer education. That same year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) warned, labels could “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” The World Health Organization found that GMO foods currently on the market “are not likely to present risks for human health.” From a regulatory perspective, the USDA has found GMO foods to be just as safe and nutritious as other foods, and no more likely to be allergenic.

Despite near unanimity among scientists, the public is deeply skeptical. In January 2015, 88% of scientists surveyed for a Pew Research Center study said GMOs were “generally safe”—about the same percentage as those believing climate change is occurring because of human activity. But the same poll found the majority of Americans thinks GMO foods are unsafe.

The “Right to Know”

Some consumer groups such as the Center for Food Safety argue that individuals have the right to know what is in their food and how it was produced, pointing to overwhelming public support of this stance.  A 2010 Thomson Reuters survey showed that 93% of respondents approved of GMO food labeling.

Some businesses are following public opinion—for example, Chipotle Mexican Grill is phasing out use of GMOs, and Whole Foods Market plans to label all GMO products by 2018. Absent federal preemption, many states were moving toward labeling laws. In addition to Vermont’s 2014 law, Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling mandates that would have taken effect once neighboring states adopted similar laws. Approximately 30 additional states have introduced GMO labeling legislation.

Public policies in Europe are more attuned to consumer preferences than those in the United States. Within the European Commission, governments must label all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production, regardless of whether genetically modified content is detectable in the end product. In other words, even though GMO and non-GMO foods are virtually identical, labeling is still required.

The USDA has 2 years to issue a rule implementing the labeling regime and has significant discretion over the types of biotechnologies covered, the symbol denoting GMO foods, and the threshold level of GMO ingredients that trigger the labeling requirements. The USDA has a lot of work to do, including a study to identify potential technological challenges affecting consumers’ ability to access the prescribed information through the QR code option.

In reality, the battle over GMO food labeling continues, with the USDA as the new arbiter. Could GMO labeling stir a new transparency movement? There is a great deal that consumers may wish to know about their food and how it is produced: where the food was grown, whether food animals were treated humanly and without antimicrobial drugs, and whether food workers were underpaid and exploited. The big question marks going forward are should consumer demand drive law, the private market, or both? Or should public policy hew to scientific evidence? When scientists and consumers have diametrically opposite views, which should prevail and why?

As far as GMO labeling is concerned, would full and transparent disclosure crowd out the market for genetically modified seed in the United States and globally? And if it did, would labeling stifle innovation? If we yield to consumer preferences absent scientific evidence, would this really benefit the public’s health and safety?

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About the author: Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, is University Professor and Faculty Director, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights. His most recent book is Global Health Law (Harvard University Press).

About The JAMA Forum: JAMA has assembled a team of leading scholars, including health economists, health policy experts, and legal scholars, to provide expert commentary and insight into news that involves the intersection of health policy and politics, economics, and the law. Each JAMA Forum entry expresses the opinions of the author but does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of JAMA, the editorial staff, or the American Medical Association. More information is available here and here.

 



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