Marta Tellado: People deserve to know what's in their food so that they can make informed decisions
Labeling is a simple and common sense solution to protect consumer choice
Editor’s Note: Marta Tellado is president and CEO of Consumer Reports. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Recently, at my neighborhood supermarket, I spotted a young mom pushing a cart with two children and a week’s worth of groceries. I watched as she checked each item’s label carefully before putting it into her cart. Was she looking for peanuts that could send her kids to the emergency room, checking the nutritional content to make sure they get enough vitamin D, or seeing if there were additives or sweeteners she’d rather have them avoid?
It could have been any of those reasons or a dozen more. Everyone deserves to know what’s in their food so they can make informed decisions about what to feed themselves and their families.
Some companies, however, think consumers don’t have a right to know what’s in their food when it comes to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Congress is holding a hearing Thursday on efforts that would make it illegal for states to require labeling of genetically modified foods. We support mandatory GMO labeling for two good reasons.
First, labeling is a simple and common sense solution to protect consumer choice. Companies that grow and sell genetically modified foods haven’t yet come up with a convincing excuse to explain why their customers should not have this information. When those companies spend untold millions to keep their customers in the dark by battling efforts to properly label their products, we ask why. And when they tell us products shouldn’t be labeled because they haven’t been proven unsafe, we call foul. Food labels contain lots of information, from complete lists of ingredients to whether a product is homogenized.
Contrary to the companies’ well-worn talking points, the cost of labeling is negligible, because companies change their product packaging regularly. Our analysis of several studies on the cost of GMO labeling found that protecting consumer choice is a bargain at less than a penny per day per person. Companies would be smart to follow those that have already chosen not to pass along that cost to consumers at the register.
Second, consumers want it. We asked consumers what they think about GMO labeling, and an overwhelming 92% of those polled agreed that genetically engineered food should be labeled as such. When that many consumers tell us they’re concerned about a product, we make it a priority. Sixty-four other countries have heeded consumers and now require GMO labeling. These mandatory labeling programs satisfy consumers in the most clear, consistent and accurate way possible.
Companies are quick to make safety claims, but scientists and regulators agree that there are serious potential risks, including the risk of introducing new allergens. Concerns are also emerging about damage caused by increased herbicide use to our health and environment.
Plants and animals whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated are different from those that occur in nature or that are developed by conventional plant or animal breeding. GMO scientists can move genes between living things that could never breed together in nature; for example, they have moved fish genes into tomatoes.
When new genes are introduced into plants or animals, they can produce proteins that aren’t usually found in those foods. Some of those proteins can cause allergic reactions. That’s why the FDA asks companies to voluntarily test those new proteins to see if they resemble any known allergens. But the testing isn’t required and isn’t foolproof.
Research shows that the rise of GMO crops has also led to vast increases in herbicide use, which threatens our health and our environment. Most GMO crops are engineered to tolerate the weed killer glyphosate, marketed as Roundup, which has recently been classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the use of glyphosate on soybeans and corn has gone up seventeen-fold since genetically engineered versions were introduced in 1996.
GMOs have only been in our food supply for a couple of decades; most Americans didn’t grow up eating them. This is an emerging field, and new information is coming to light every day. Labeling foods made with GMOs is a simple solution to start addressing people’s concerns.
Agreeing to label GMO foods will let companies demonstrate they are listening to the overwhelming majority of their customers. That’s good business. Labels will give consumers the information they want and deserve, so they can make informed choices about the foods they choose to buy. That’s just the right thing to do.
At Consumer Reports we say labeling makes common sense. Companies that respect their customers and policymakers who respect their voters will follow our lead.