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To label or not to label?


November 7, 2014
By Leslie Ballentine

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I confess I’m not much of a label reader. According to Statistics Canada, I am in the minority among the 60 per cent of Canadians who report they do read food labels for nutritional content alone. Add to that “best before” dates, ingredients, allergy information, production methods, country of origin, marketing claims, SKUs and QR codes, weights and volumes, cooking instructions, company contact information, all in both official languages, and I find it pretty amazing that we can cram all this information onto a food package.  

So when I hear calls for even more mandatory food labels I shake my head.  It isn’t that I disagree with imparting information. I am consistent in my opinion that people deserve to make informed choices. (Whether we do or not is another matter.)  In fact, I have long said that labelling may be a sometimes solution to some of our controversial food issues.  

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Take genetically modified foods as an example.  There is an escalating battle over biotechnology labelling in food.  Ironically, there is no such public debate surrounding biotech medicines which we also ingest and can be just as lifesaving or life improving as the food we eat.   

According to industry estimates, in the nearly two decades since genetically modified seeds were made commercially available these crops have become the norm in the typical North American diet. Used to make ingredients in about 80 per cent of packaged food, today, more than 90 per cent of corn, canola, soybean and sugar beet crops in the U.S. are genetically modified.  These same GM crops are also grown in Canada and used for food, consumer goods and animal feed. So labelling foods containing GM ingredients would arguably encompass most of the processed foods and animal products we eat.  

GM ingredients are the new “conventional”.

Retailers and food producers such as Whole Foods, Ben and Jerry’s, and organic anything, are often those who are pushing for such labelling — no doubt to better position themselves in the GMO-free marketplace, where GMO has become a pejorative and has gained a reputation as something to fear.

As Globe and Mail business columnist Todd Hirsch recently opined about GM labelling, “[i]f consumers can be convinced they should be nervous or fearful of something, it’s an easy step to sell them things they don’t need.” Labelling is something many large food companies oppose as an unnecessary cost and that from a human health and safety perspective, science says isn’t necessary. After all they argue we don’t label foods for pesticides, fertilizers or these other “conventional” food-production technologies.

In Canada, the voluntary labelling of novel foods derived from genetic modification is allowed, on the condition that the claim is not misleading or deceptive and the claim itself is factual. Government regulators cannot require products be labelled if there is no material difference between them and food produced by conventional methods. Instead manufacturers and retailers can opt to label (and charge a premium) for foods that can be assured to not come from GM crops and animals. Those consumers who want to avoid GMs have the option to do so: there are a range of organic and non-GMO certified products on the market.

“Non-GMO” is one of the fastest-growing label trends on U.S. food packages, with sales of such items growing 28 per cent last year to about $3 billion, according to market-research firm Nielsen. A company press release reports that in a 2014 poll of nearly 1,200 U.S. consumers for the Wall Street Journal, Nielsen found that 61 per cent of consumers had heard of GMOs and nearly half of those people said they avoid eating them. The biggest reason given was because it “doesn’t sound like something I should eat.”  

Food marketers could change that.

Most of the foodstuffs we consume directly isn’t GM, but the crops are used to produce common ingredients like corn syrup, soy lecithin and sugar — plus the feed consumed by our livestock.

Just as we have bred poultry to grow faster and more efficiently, GM applications could also be used to replace or enhance these traditional selective breeding methods. Genetic modification also has purpose in reducing the environmental footprint of food animal production and improving animal health and welfare, attributes that consumers would support.

Here’s the point: Of course we are likely never all going to agree on labelling just as we can’t agree on whether we call them GMs, GMOs, GE, GIFs, and so on. Social acceptance, and the farm and food community, might be better served by branding the positive attributes of GM foods. Polls show most everyone is aware of GMO’s. Awareness and understanding of GMOs are two different things. Better understanding could begin by giving the technology a non-threatening name. “Genetically Improved Foods” or “Genetically Enhanced” would be a start.