Ethics of Labeling

We’ve discussed labeling many times at Biofortified, usually looking at things from a practical perspective, such as in the posts What’s in a label? and Labeling GMOs. I argue that anything that is scientifically proven to be a hazard should be a mandatory label. For example, a label that a product contains nuts is justified by severe allergic reactions, even though the additional label may add to the cost of a product for people who don’t have allergies. Any label that doesn’t have a proven hazard is simply a label of preference, so should not be mandatory. Instead, voluntary labels are appropriate. For example, producers may choose to label products as free from animal products if they think the cost of sourcing non-animal ingredients, testing, and labeling will be rewarded by additional purchases of their products by vegetarians and vegans. Non-vegetarians shouldn’t have to pay for a label is based on preference, not science.

Practical concerns are not the only reason to label or not label foods, however. Ethics definitely comes into play. Do people have a right to labels, such as labels that indicate a product contains ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms?

Chris MacDonald

Chris MacDonald, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary’s University, has written about the ethics of labeling GMOs at The Food Ethics Blog: Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods? and in a peer-revied paper Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods in the Journal of Business Ethics. The full paper is well worth reading, as is the blog post, but I’ll summarize (and editorialize) a bit here.

Chris argues that corporations should only be compelled to label if the product meets any of the following criteria:

  1. A law requiring it;
  2. A serious threat to human health;
  3. Recognition within the industry that labelling made sense as a shared way of doing business; or
  4. A consumer right to the information.

Of course, a law is not warranted unless one of the three other criteria is met, but based on our standards of ethics, individuals and companies are ethically bound to follow the law.

As Chris his co-author Melissa Whellams describe, the Canadian government passed the Standard for Voluntary labelling and Advertising of Foods that are and are not Products of Genetic Engineering in April 2004 in response to consumer requests for labeling.

The voluntary nature of the Standard essentially puts the onus of labelling back onto food producers and manufacturers. Current legislation under the Canadian Food and Drugs Act requires that all foods, including GM products, be labeled where potential health and safety risks (e.g., allergens) have been identified, or where foods have undergone significant nutritional, or compositional changes. Since Health Canada has deemed GM foods to be safe, companies are not required to label products as genetically modified, but under the new Standard, companies may voluntarily label their foods as products of genetic engineering.

While the Standard was being drafted, some stakeholders argued that GMOs are a “like to know” issue and that a “Contains GMOs” type label would simply be confusing to consumers, possibly mistaken as a warning. Other stakeholders argued that GMOs are a “right to know” issue, which is where ethics comes in. Do consumers who want to know if products contain products of genetic engineering have rights that trump the rights of consumers who don’t care? What about farmers, distributors, grocers?

Chris and Melissa argue “that although unilateral action in this regard might be admirable, an agri- food company has no ethical obligation to label its GM foods, given the current social, legal, scientific, and economic context.” This includes no ethical obligation to the consumer.

How can this be, when arguments for labeling of GMOs are often rooted in rights, including the important idea of autonomy? Chris and Melissa explain autonomy “as involving morally important kinds of control over one’s life.”

We might then say that a person has a right to X (some bit of information, in the case at hand) where X is a prerequisite for effective exercise of autonomy, i.e., for effective decision-making regarding matters about which it is morally good that I be able to make decisions.

For example, most of us agree that we have a right to know information about a diagnosis that would help us to make informed decisions about medical treatment options. This is in contrast to the way healthcare was done in decades past, where patients assumed the doctor knew best.

Despite the arguments of labeling advocates, there is no such agreement about right to know for non-health related information when it comes to food. For example, despite the importance of freedom of religion in the US and Canada, no one is arguing for mandatory labeling for non-health religious reasons. We expect people who want to keep Kosher to seek out Kosher foods themselves. If religious or spiritual food needs aren’t considered a right, why would any other “desire to know” be a right? Perhaps this will change in the future, as “desire to know” became “right to know” in health care, but until then, governments and corporations are under no ethical obligation to label.

In another post, Chris argues that in the case of Trans-fats, there does seem to be sufficient threat to human health to warrant mandatory labeling, in contrast to the lack of harm shown by genetically engineered crops. In another post, Chris addresses the idea that environmental concerns are enough to warrant labeling, arguing that the concerns aren’t science based and that labels wouldn’t actually decrease environmental harm anyway. Besides, we know that genetic engineering is less harmful to the environment than other agricultural practices that aren’t labeled.

*Chris is also the Coordinator of SMU’s M.A. Programme in Philosophy and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Business Ethics and has been named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics two years in a row by Ethisphere magazine.

ResearchBlogging.orgMacDonald, C., & Whellams, M. (2007). Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods Journal of Business Ethics, 75 (2), 181-189 DOI: 10.1007/s10551-006-9245-8