Food Labeling

What You Do Know Can Also Hurt You

Some federal label mandates drive up prices without making us safer.

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GMO protest
Odeta Catana/ZUMA Press/Newscom

We live in the information age, which is called that for the same reason the ice age got its name: an overwhelming proliferation of the stuff. We automatically assume that more information is better than less. But as the dinosaurs learned about ice, even something useful can be dangerous in excess.

The lesson is, so far, lost on most lawmakers and regulators. In July, President Barack Obama signed a bill requiring foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such. It's an outwardly innocuous requirement that is supposed to leave consumers better informed but will actually cause many to be misled.

The implication of the mandate is that there is some important difference between foods that contain GMOs and foods that don't. But there isn't. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that genetically engineered food is safe for humans, animals, and the environment.

This scientific reality is at odds with public opinion. A June poll by ABC News showed that only one-third of Americans think genetically modified foods are safe to eat. Federally required labels will encourage them to persist in that delusion.

What's the harm in telling people a simple fact? "A government-mandated label operates as a de facto warning to consumers," writes Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler in the fall issue of Regulation magazine. "A mandatory label for organic produce that says 'Produced with animal feces' could be literally true, but would also stigmatize the products at issue."

The government says tomato sauce may contain trace amounts of maggots. But it would not make sense to make companies publicize that ingredient, because the disclosure would raise false fears.

There are other ways in which labeling requirements can be harmful. Starting next year, the Food and Drug Administration will require chain restaurants to publish the calorie count of each beer on their menus.

But there's scant evidence this sort of information makes much difference. Julie Downs, a scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, says that "putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people's ordering behaviors at all."

This rule, however, may have an unintended effect on ordering behaviors—by taking some beers off the table. The tests needed to provide accurate information entail costs that are trivial to mass-market manufacturers, which can spread across huge volumes, but not to small breweries, which can't.

The expense is even greater, notes Berry College economist E. Frank Stephenson, for breweries "that rotate beers frequently, produce seasonal specialties or occasionally tweak their recipes." Not surprisingly, the big beer-makers are in favor of the rule. The Brewers Association, a trade group for smaller ones, is not so keen on it.

The added cost imposed by the new rule is not likely to yield commensurate benefits. Drinkers who prefer low-calorie beers already know what to order, while craft beer aficionados generally put a priority on flavor over everything else. The consumers who get the least benefit will bear the costs of the mandate, in higher prices or fewer options. (Full disclosure: My stepson works for a craft brewery.)

Beer and food are not the only realms where more data works to the detriment of consumers. Most states issue report cards for hospitals. This may sound like a foolproof way of protecting patients from incompetent providers. The truth is more complicated.

University of Chicago law professor Omri Ben-Shahar tells me that "healthier and wealthier people are disproportionately likely to use the report card." Hospitals that get high marks will attract more of these patients—and they have an incentive to cater to them, because treating healthier patients leads to higher scores.

But the higher-rated hospitals don't have unlimited capacity. So less educated and sicker patients, who are less likely to pay attention to the report cards, will find them less accessible, diverting them to hospitals that get worse scores. "The most vulnerable patients, including a large, disproportionate share of African-American patients, are the ones most likely to suffer," Ben-Shahar says.

A lot of disclosures are merely useless, because they go unread—like the "terms and conditions" for iTunes, which run to 6,700 words. But politicians and bureaucrats feel no compunction about generating more and more data that will go unheeded at best and prove harmful at worst.

Mae West said, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." If she had lived to read the iTunes user agreement, she might have changed her mind.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. “A mandatory label for organic produce that says ‘Produced with animal feces’ could be literally true”

    Awesome. At least mandate that label for political ads.

    1. The problem with mandating that label for political ads is that there is a difference between “produced with” and “consisting entirely of,” and it might be confusing for low-information voters.

      1. not much difference that I can see..

      2. My co-worker’s step-sister makes $97 hourly on the laptop . She has been out of work for six months but last month her paycheck was $14100 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go this website and click to tech tab to start your work… http://tinyurl.com/hhwe4zl

      3. Nonsense; very few political ads consist entirely of animal feces. Most of them have at least traces of much stronger poison.

  2. And yet, Chapman is voting for more of the same.

  3. Regulation magazine? Is that seriously a thing? Like a Bizarro reason or something?

    1. Yes, it is. Saw a copy on the newsstand recently. Didn’t read because I was afraid I’d get nauseous.

      1. Why, because it’s published by Cato instead of Reason? Damn, you’re a real loyalist there!

  4. The GMO labeling agenda is designed to play to the public’s general ignorance on science and stigmatize GMO’s as scary horrible chemicals, which the public will turn away from, and therefore remove GMO’s from the marketplace by stealth what government could not do by an outright ban of GMO’s.

      1. Dihydrogen Monoxide is a powerful greenhouse gas too, thus the government should regulate it. ^_-

        The first part of this statement is factually true, by the way.

    1. You mean GMOs might disappear from the marketplace due to lack of consumer demand? Oh, the horror!

      1. Well that is the point of the GMO labeling agenda. Stigmatize them via government fiat with a special label that implies that they are extra-special dangerous or something, and then consumers ignorant of basic science will react with horror. It is basically propaganda via other means.

        1. ” It is basically propaganda via other means.”

          You haven’t explained how labelling the contents of a product is propaganda. If the manufacturers of GMO find they are making a product that doesn’t appeal to consumers, they have recourse to advertising.

          I promise you that neither the government nor the president has it in for GMO. It’s only thanks to decades of government spending that we have GMO in the first place. They’ve decided that it’s good for you and are not shy about telling you.

          1. RTFA. The Academy of Science has found there’s no reason to think GMOs are bad in any way. They definitely make food cheaper and farmers more productive. In some case (e.g. golden rice) the GMO food is much healthier than non-modified varieties.

            I have no idea whether President Obama is “having it in for GMOs”. I am quite certain that some members of Congress _do_ have it in for GMOs for totally unscientific reasons. It could be the member’s gut reaction or pressure from interest groups who oppose GMOs for a variety of reasons.

            I think many people thing “GMO == scary” and don’t think much further than that. They’ll react to what’s seen and not consider what’s unseen.

            1. “I think many people thing “GMO == scary” and don’t think much further than that.”

              It’s not illegal to entertain such thoughts. It’s not fair, I know, but not illegal. Nor is there is anything stopping GMO manufacturers from launching ad campaigns to persuade consumers to demand GMO.

              “In some case (e.g. golden rice) the GMO food is much healthier than non-modified varieties.”

              Again the problem is lack of demand. Asian consumers want to eat white rice, not yellow rice. With labelling, the manufacturers know that consumers will avoid their product. That’s why they are desperate to avoid mandatory labelling. This is a problem of the manufacturers pushing a product the public is not demanding. They have the means to address it.

              “I am quite certain that some members of Congress _do_ have it in for GMOs for totally unscientific reasons.”

              The reasons are immaterial. Consumers don’t need your approval before they choose what they buy. They are perfectly within their rights not to buy products you deem healthy for them.

              1. Here’s the thing. I already see tons of food labeled “non-GMO”. Apparently some manufacturers have listened to their customers and decided they want to advertise that. Surely other manufacturers should be at liberty to make a different choice.

                If I want non-GMO food, I can look for items which say that. If I see a package which is silent, perhaps I should assume it contains GMO-derived products and not buy it. If enough people stop buying non-labeled foods, I’m certain producers will pay attention.

                So it looks like producers and consumers have already sorted this out. Why do we need to force anyone to do anything?

                1. “Surely other manufacturers should be at liberty to make a different choice.”

                  At the moment they are. But they should also be prepared for the eventuality of legislation for compulsory labellling. That seems to be the way the legislators are going.

    2. If the public fails to appreciate the wonders of GMO because of ignorance, nothing is stopping the manufacturers from stepping up and doing some educating. If they want to establish a demand for a product where none exists, it’ll be an up hill battle, no matter what.

      1. If they want to establish a demand for a product where none exists

        Except, there is a demand for inexpensive food, a great demand in fact (one has only to look at the reams of grocery coupons that get printed every week for evidence). The issue here is a misinformation campaign on the part of the producers of expensive food to suppress demand for inexpensive food so that the peddlers of the more expensive product can profit. As mentioned in the article, fair play would demand that if the government mandates labeling GMO food as such that it should also mandate labeling of the unsavory practices of organic food (“Produced with animal feces”). If the government is going to require labels, then they should practice fair play, not seek to propagandize in favor of a specific faction.

        1. “Except, there is a demand for inexpensive food”

          That’s why prices are featured prominently on the label. Because of the demand. There is no demand for GMO otherwise the manufacturers would be only too happy to include the information, as they do when they supplement their product with vitamin C, for example.

          “The issue here is a misinformation campaign on the part of the producers of expensive food to suppress demand for inexpensive food so that the peddlers of the more expensive product can profit.”

          If you believe the manufacturers of expensive food are doing anything illegal, you should inform the appropriate authorities. Propagandizing, advertising, call it what you will, it is not illegal.

          “As mentioned in the article, fair play would demand…”

          What is fair, what is unfair, is irrelevant. Nobody is demanding the feces labelling. That means no votes for legislators. GMO labelling is a different story.

  5. Not surprisingly, the big beer-makers are in favor of the rule. The Brewers Association, a trade group for smaller ones, is not so keen on it.

    It’s almost as though rent-seeking were a thing, but since my big-government-worshiping friends cannot be made even to say that term, I assume that rent-seeking never happens.

  6. (Now if we could just get Chapman to recognize that the one constant element in this is government.)

    Dear Steve,

    We don’t live in an information age nearly to the extent we live in a government age. It is entirely possible to go through a day without being exposed to new information (may require conscious effort, but it is still doable.)

    No such thing can be said about living a single day free from the direct effects of the ‘overwhelming proliferation’ of an overweening government.

    1. “It is entirely possible to go through a day without being exposed to new information (may require conscious effort, but it is still doable.)”

      On the contrary, if one limits oneself to the usual Mainstream Media one can go comfortably through the day without encountering anything remotely resembling new information. LOTS of blather, but to be information it must be true.

  7. My least favorite excess information is the California Proposition 65 warnings. They’re everywhere. My house had a prop 65 warning when I bought it.

    I seriously doubt anyone in California pays any attention to these warnings. They are literally on every single store and building. They convey exactly no information to help me make a decision. It’s high time to repeal the proposition but that’s a huge hassle (and expense) so no one is bothering.

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  12. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….

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  13. Liliana . if you think Lawrence `s blog is incredible, I just purchased a new Honda after earning $5741 this – 4 weeks past and also 10 grand lass month . it’s by-far the most-comfortable job I have ever done . I started this four months/ago and almost immediately began to make minimum $85… p/h .

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