Some of the hottest issues in food today revolve around genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, sometimes called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Detractors have called them “Frankenfoods.” Consumers may wonder if they are safe. Regardless of what any government agency says, the safety of GE foods is not a legal question. It’s a matter of science. Ultimately, a GE food is either safe or it isn’t – depending, of course, on how you define safe.
Whether consumers have a right to know if the foods they buy are made from GE ingredients is another matter. That is a legal question and is at the epicenter of the quake that is shaking the food world today. Consumers argue that they have a right to know what’s in their food. Producers argue that mandating labels that identify foods as GE, in the absence of any hard evidence that GE foods are harmful, will needlessly alarm the public. Food producers also argue that the promise of genetic engineering, to bring about more and healthier foods – especially to impoverished third world populations – will be thwarted.
Food producers sometimes argue that mandating the disclosure of GE ingredients is a violation of their First Amendment free speech rights. I don’t see this as a serious argument because the government has always required the disclosure of all kinds of information about food. Still, it’s in the mix.
When the state of Vermont passed legislation requiring foods sold in Vermont to disclose the presence of GE ingredients, every cog of the legal machinery went into action. The U.S. House and Senate considered legislation to take away from states the right to mandate such a labeling requirement. Food industry lawyers went to court to challenge the Vermont law. Administrative agencies considered their powers to step into the fray.
The safety of GE foods is not settled, but neither is the question of labeling. The solution may well lie outside the law. Here is a label from a can of Campbell’s SpaghettiOs. Beneath the lengthy list of ingredients is a statement: “PARTIALLY PRODUCED WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING.” The label then invites the consumer to its web site, WhatsinMyFood.com where, if one follows the SpaghettiOs link, you find:
“In America, approximately 90% of all canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Farmers have been using these seeds for more than 20 years as they are safe, reduce costs, and improve yields.”
Are they safe? There is probably not enough evidence on the other side to subject the Campbell’s claim to any serious legal challenge.
Why did Campbell’s do this? It was not by force of a government edict or the result of a lawsuit. It may be simply just a good business decision. It may be a recognition of what may end up being a legal requirement, but if all food producers follow in the path of SpaghettiOs, government action will be unnecessary.
It’s not likely that the disclosure of the presence of GE ingredients will harm the sale of SpaghettiOs. You might look down your nose at this product and argue that consumers of SpaghettiOs are not interested or even aware of genetic engineering. But let’s not be elitists about this. Maybe the answer lies in the market place, a market place influenced by public opinion and the threats of legislation that may require even harsher requirements.