Science & Technology

Will Big Food Corporations Give In to Activist Anti-Scientific Demands to Label Biotech Crops?


The New York Times is running an article today that reports a recent meeting in Washington, D.C. organized by the Meridian Institute at which executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra, and Wal-Mart met with anti-biotech activists to discuss labeling foods made with ingredients derived from biotech crops. The meeting was held in the wake of the defeat of California's scientifically ridiculous Proposition 37 that would have required such labeling. The big food and beverage processors and sellers are feeling harassed by various new state biotech labeling initiatives being pushed by activists. As the Times reports:

Instead of quelling the demand for labeling, the defeat of the California measure has spawned a ballot initiative in Washington State and legislative proposals in Connecticut, Vermont, New Mexico and Missouri, and a swelling consumer boycott of some organic or "natural" brands owned by major food companies…

"The big food companies found themselves in an uncomfortable position after Prop. 37, and they're talking among themselves about alternatives to merely replaying that fight over and over again," said Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University who attended the meeting.

I was somewhat perplexed by the Times' rather bland identification of Benbrook, who is a well-known anti-biotech advocate and the chief scientist for the Organic Center. Never mind.

In any case, as the Times reports, the big corporations, in order to avoid expensive state-by-state fights to defend science against activist disinformation campaigns, are doing what they always do: ask the Feds to come in and impose a uniform requirement for labels. But is labeling a foregone conclusion? Perhaps not. In a legal backgrounder, [PDF] the Washington Legal Foundation, which describes its mission as strengthening free enterprise, concludes:

[T]he federal government has squarely rejected arguments that GM foods are unsafe or that labeling of GM foods should be required or is appropriate. States that enact statutes that single out GM products or producers for adverse treatment – burdening their operations through labels or liability rules or barring their operations altogether – may find these laws to be unenforceable as contrary to federal law.

Are foods made with ingredients from biotech crops safe? Every independent scientific body that has ever reviewed the issue has concluded that they are. For example, in 2012 the American Medical Association issued a statement on labeling biotech foods that concluded:

Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature…

Despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, the FDA's science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The Council supports this science-based approach, and believes that thorough pre-market safety assessment and the FDA's requirement that any material difference between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts be disclosed in labeling, are effective in ensuring the safety of bioengineered food.

It is no more reasonable to vote on the safety of biotech crops than it is to cast ballots on the reality of biological evolution or the safety of vaccines. Maybe food companes will end up following the example of food processors whose products "may contain nuts." Simply slap a label on everything saying: "This product may contain ingredients from modern biotech crops." Pretty soon for most consumers such a label will go in one eye and out the other with no effect on their purchasing decisions.