What’s in a label?

Marion Nestle’s post Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too! has been passed around the internet many times in the past few days by opponents of biotechnology. I appreciate their desire to know more about what they are eating, and I appreciate that Dr. Nestle admitted that “GM labeling as an issue of consumer choice, not of science”. However, I think that efforts to mandate labeling are misguided. To help demonstrate why seeking mandatory labeling of ingredients derived from GM crops is inappropriate, please consider the following example:

I am a vegetarian (for a variety of reasons), and avoid animal by-products. One such product is gelatin. The sources of gelatin are diverse, including cow hide, pig skin, animal bones, fish and even corn. There are a number of products that are similar to gelatin but are not animal derived that may be labeled as gelatin, such as agar-agar from seaweed and hypromellose from wood or cotton. Glycerin, found in products as diverse as shampoo and candy, can be derived from animal fat or vegetable oils. Don’t even get me started on rennet, which can be derived from animals and plants as well as GM and non-GM bacteria and fungi.

My desire to avoid animal by-products is not based on science – there are no health dangers associated with animal glycerine or rennet from calves stomachs when compared to their non-animal derived counterparts. Still, I have a right to avoid them if I so chose. So, I think that having a “contains animal by-products” label would be wonderful. It would save me a lot of time and worry, as well as allowing me to select food and hygiene products with ingredients of unknown sources that I currently avoid.

Despite my strong wishes for a “contains animal by-products” label, I acknowledge that I have no basis on which to demand mandatory labeling from the USDA or FDA or any other US government agency. I do have a right to ask food companies through petitions, letters, etc to avoid animal-by products and to use such a label. Any prospective labels would only be appropriate if voluntary. Instead of “contains animal by-propducts”, it would be far more appropriate to have a “does not contain animal by-products” or “vegetarian” label.

Why shouldn’t the labels be mandatory?

If I accidentally consume a product that contains animal derived ingredients, I (probably) won’t get sick. This is completely unlike labels for allergens such as “may contain tree nuts”. If a person with a nut allergy accidentally eats a product that contains even a tiny amount of nuts, they may die.

Became there is no health reason to avoid animal by-products, there is no justification for a mandatory label. Such a label would place an unwarranted burden on producers. Companies would have to find suppliers of ingredients that have single sources, when most suppliers simple acquire the least expensive source of a given ingredient. They would have to redesign their labels to include the sources, or at minimum, add the “contains animal by-products” label (depending on how this hypothetical mandate was written). Adding this burden to producers would increase the cost of food and hygiene products, which causes a burden to consumers. Another downside of mandated labeling is that the label could loose meaning over time. Companies may choose to avoid all the research and special sourcing of ingredients by simply claiming their products contain animal by-products even when they do not.

Of course, a company may decide that all of this work, time, and money is worth it. They may decide that the added benefit to their consumers justifies an increse of cost of the product. They may find that consumers want more information about their products and that providing this information increases sales. These voluntary labels are unlikely to lose meaning over time, and may even become a primary reason why consumers choose one company over another. Burt’s Bees is one such company that is cultivating these such consumers. With Burt’s Bees products, I can easily see the source of each ingredient on their label. If I want more information, I can view their Ingredients Glossary online. The label adds value to the product as well as adding cost to the product, and plenty of customers are willing to pay more.

Consumers have a right to choose what products they do or do not want to buy, and should make those choices known in the marketplace through the products they buy and communication with companies. They do not have a right to force their choices on everyone else, particularly when it will directly affect the cost of food and hygiene items. Countries that mandate labels for reasons that are not based on health and safety are putting the desires of the few over the needs of the many.

Mandating a “contains genetically modified ingredients” label is very similar to a hypothetical “contains animal by-products” label. A voluntary “does not contain genetically modified ingredients” is very similar to a hypothetical “does not contain animal byproducts” or “vegetarian” label. Many voluntary labels already exist and are a great way for consumers to exercise their freedom to choose. The Non GMO Project is an example of 3rd party labeling for products that do not contain genetically engineered foods and the European Vegetarian Union is an example of 3rd party labeling for products that do not contain animal byproducts.

I disagree with any efforts to prevent voluntary labeling, even when I disagree with the reasons for or validity of such labels, even when I think such labels do more harm than good. In a free market system, producers should have a right to add any truthful label to their product that they want. The more labels the better!