GMO labeling may be more about marketing than transparency

July 19, 2016
Screen Shot at AM
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

For years, activists have demanded the labeling of food containing genetically engineered ingredients based on a claim that it would allow consumers to “make informed choices about our food.”

Relying on data showing a majority of Americans supporting such mandatory labels, and citing other countries that already have them, these groups claim that consumers have the “right to know”.

Now a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, challenges the notion that such a label would actually allow consumers to be more informed about their food. The study is somewhat limited due to its sample size and only represents law students and law professors, but the school itself represents a wide diversity of students and staff.

Analyzing 185 respondents to a survey about food labels from the California Western School of Law, researchers found that mandatory GMO labels would make consumers concerned about their health, safety, and the environment. These results appear to contradict research from the University of Vermont that such a label would not be viewed as a warning by consumers.

Products labeled as containing GMOs were rated lower by consumers than products with non/low-fat labels or products with organic, natural, or non-GMO labels. Organic, natural, and non-GMO labeled foods were rated higher in consumers minds than products labeled either low or non-fat.

In addition, consumers also rated both organic and conventional farmers higher than GMO farmers in the areas of health, safety, and the environment. Even the motives of farmers who grow GM crops were ranked lower than conventional and organic farmers.

“The responses that GMO labeled food is less safe than food with other labels suggests a disconnect between consumer attitudes and the scientific consensus,” the authors wrote, noting that the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Medical Association have issued statements that genetically engineered crops pose no more risk than other conventionally grown or organic food and that special labeling is not justified. “Thus,” they wrote, “participants indicated an association of health, safety and environmental friendliness with labeling that does not align with the positions of major scientific and medical associations.”

Because many consumers have expressed worry about ingesting foreign proteins or allergens, the researchers compared reactions to sugar and apples. Sugar does not contain proteins, and organic apples have been found to have a higher risk of some food-borne pathogens. It was found that the type of product did not matter to consumers, labels had the most significant impact on their assumptions about the product.

But what about that study from Vermont showing the opposite to be true? I have been unable to locate a published version of Jane Kolodinsky’s survey results, only press releases put out by her university for her presentation. But emails I received from a freedom of information act request may provide some evidence of bias on her part.

Along with dozens of email updates from Just Label It and Food Democracy Now, below is an email to the office of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. Kolodinsky requested a quote from the governor to go along with her presentation showing praise for her work, going so far to even draft a quote for the governor to use. Kolodinsky’s email states that the purpose of her research was to provide evidence that Vermont’s labeling law was “based on a consumer’s right to know”.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 2.32.58 PM

The governor’s office declined her request for a quote, “Given that the law is in litigation”. Litigation where the plaintiffs are claiming that the mandatory labels would appear to be a warning label in the eyes of consumers.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 2.33.40 PM

The survey results from the California law school also run counter to claims made by the Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports that its campaigns to promote organic food should not discourage people from eating conventional fruits and vegetables. The authors hypothesize that the results may be caused by marketing campaigns to convince consumers that GMOs pose risks. “It is possible that consumers are calling for labels to confirm what they are learning through marketing campaigns,” they explain.

Consumer Report's disclaimer at the bottom of their special report on pesticides.
Consumer Report’s disclaimer at the bottom of their special report on pesticides.

The idea that food labels can be misleading is not a new one. Many of the same groups that are lobbying for mandatory GMO labels criticize free range, cage free, and natural labels as misleading. Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science explains how the no sugar added label is misleading to consumers:

Every bottle of Naked Juice proudly claims “No Sugar Added.” Though technically true, the phrase is marketing wordplay designed to mask the fact that their juice already contains copious amounts of sugar, as much as a similar-sized soft drink! The type of sugar in Naked Juice, called fructose, normally isn’t that bad when consumed in actual fruit, which contains fibers to counteract the negative metabolic effects of sugar. But in Naked Juice, those fibers are mostly absent, basically making Naked Juice a $4 can of soda. Naked Juice is easy to pick on, but many other companies are guilty of sneakily using the “No Added Sugar” slogan as well.

The organic industry has spent millions of dollars over the years to convince consumers that food containing genetically engineered ingredients are inherently more risky than their own products, in contradiction to the overwhelming scientific consensus. Its own demands that misleading labels be removed from products makes it fairly clear how aware they are of the power such labels hold over consumers. Is the fight to label ingredients based on the breeding method of seed really about your “right to know”, or about convincing people that organic cookies are healthier than a genetically engineered papaya?

Stephan Neidenbach is a middle school teacher, husband, and father living in Annapolis, MD. He holds a BS in business administration from Salisbury University and a MS in Instructional Technology from University of Maryland University College. He started and runs the Facebook page We Love GMOs and Vaccines, follow him on twitter @welovegv.

Related article:  PepsiCo, Frito-Lay quietly labeling products containing GMOs

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
a a b b a f ac a

Video: Death by COVID: The projected grim toll in historical context

The latest statistics, as of July 10, show COVID-19-related deaths in U.S. are just under 1,000 per day nationally, which is ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
types of oak trees

Infographic: Power of evolution? How oak trees came to dominate North American forests

Over the course of some 56 million years, oaks, which all belong to the genus Quercus, evolved from a single undifferentiated ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend