Some consumers wish to avoid foods with genetically engineered ingredients, so food producers have increasingly responded to this market demand by labeling food products that do not contain them. There are many thousands of voluntarily labeled, non-GE foods available in grocery stores throughout the country, in stores as varied as Whole Foods Markets and Walmart. From just 2000 to 2009, nearly 7,000 new food and beverage products were introduced in the United States with explicit non-GE labeling. And those numbers continue to grow.
In addition, groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Organic Consumers Association to the Non-GMO Project have created websites, print pocket guides, and even smart phone apps that help shoppers identify “GE-free” products. And certified organic foods may not be produced with genetically engineered ingredients. So, in cases where a “GE-free” labeled product is unavailable, shoppers can choose certified organic products instead. In short, consumers have at their disposal an abundance of information directing them to affirmatively labeled non-GE products and providing ample choice in the marketplace.
Countless scientific organizations agree that foods that contain GE ingredients are no less safe, no less nutritious and no less healthy than foods that do not. In fact, in some cases, GE ingredients have been shown to be safer, more nutritious or both, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require blanket labeling of all GE ingredients. The FDA’s policy requires specific labeling if, and only if, the composition of those foods differs significantly from that of their conventional counterparts. Material differences would include, among other things, the introduction of an allergen that is not present in the new variety’s conventional counterpart, a reduction or increase in nutrients or even a change in the product’s taste, smell, texture or expected storage or preparation characteristics.
Most importantly, FDA policy requires that the change itself must be identified on labels, not the breeding method used. After all, if you want to alert consumers to the presence of a potential allergen, or to a tomato that contains more or less vitamin C, saying only that genetic engineering was used to develop the plant or animal variety conveys no useful information. Many consumers are unaware of the FDA’s current labeling policy, but when they are told about it, one finds broad support. In a series of polls commissioned by the International Food Information Council, respondents were first read a summary of the FDA policy and then asked their opinion. In every one of the 17 surveys, conducted between 1997 and 2013, a majority of respondents agreed with the FDA’s approach.
Some GE labeling advocates say they have a right to know what’s in their food. But genetic engineering is not a thing that’s in the food. It is simply one of many breeding methods used to modify plants and animals at the genetic level. The very purpose of all breeding is to modify an organism’s genetic composition and expression, in turn changing the food product’s characteristics. So, even if consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, the FDA’s current policy is better at supplying that information than a label simply saying “Genetically Engineered.”