Do You Read Your Food Label?

Contributors: April Campbell, Claire Crossgrove, Becky Golus, Shannon Ronhovde

As consumers continue to seek information about the safety and risks of GMOs, one of the issues that has reached high levels of concern is the labeling of GMO ingredients and whether or not it should be a requirement for companies to make that distinction in print. This affects the United States the most as GMO labeling is required in more than 64 countries around the world (1). However, with nearly 70-80% of processed foods containing modified ingredients (2), the labels may be more pervasive than distinguishing.

In a survey of 250 respondents, 68% of the individuals who felt they were informed about GMOs indicated their belief that GMOs are safe for consumption. Interestingly, out of those who felt they were not informed, only 30% thought GMOs were safe. This statistic, along with this Jimmy Kimmel video, are clear indications that an underlying issue to the great debate is the accurate education of consumers. Will labeling truly educate or does a mandate simply perpetuate the idea of safety concerns without further investigation by the consumer?

Former Executive Director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, Cathleen Enright, shared her comments about labeling requirements:

“We cannot support the mandatory labeling of GM food just because the food in the market was produced using genetic engineering, for example, in wine, yogurt or bread made with GM yeast, vegetable oil made from GM soybeans, or cereal sweetened with GM sugar. These foods are as safe and nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts as determined by recognized authorities around the world including the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Their safety has also been affirmed globally by food safety regulatory authorities including in the European Union, which comes as a surprise to some who mistakenly believe that GMOs are banned by the European Union.” (3)

As Enright alludes to, individuals who use the European Union restrictions as an example of why labeling should be required often do so without regard of the scientific, health, and food safety regulating organizations’ conclusions which are contradictory. While other countries have incorporated labeling laws and some restrictions to importing, it’s important to discuss their motives.

The European perspective of GMOs is in place primarily due to “policies of food security and self-autonomy through economic protectionism.” (4) In other words, their main concern is not the safety of consumers that so many believe the regulations to be based upon. Rather, restricting policies on GMOs is a way to limit the influence and dominance of other agricultural companies’ products being imported.

Consumers trust labels on products, which is why organizations to regulate safety for products–food or otherwise–exist in the first place. However, consumers are reading nutrition labels less than ever before (5) and their trust in the companies that produce their food is lacking. This is largely due to lack of education. According to Hartman Group research, only 52% of consumers understand what GMOs are and only 9% understand that certified organic foods are GMO-free (6). Additionally, a survey conducted by BFG discovered that only 20% of consumers who were buying organic food could define what “organic” actually meant. (7)

As the safety of GMOs continues to be critiqued and evaluated, it will remain crucial for companies and organizations to offer consumer education in order to make informed decisions. Whether this comes in the form of labels, education programs, more transparency, or some other means; a standard needs to be set for defining GMOs and organic produce to reduce the current dominance of confused but concerned customers.

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