La­bel­ing scary food

Wash­ing­ton state’s vot­ers turn back a ‘franken­food’ scare

The Washington Times Daily - - Editorial -

Sci­ence of­ten comes to con­clu­sions that are un­clear and con­tra­dic­tory. One study says cell­phones, eggs and salt will kill us; the next day another study says no, they won’t. It’s fool­ish to en­act laws based on head­lines and sen­sa­tional stud­ies.

Even the state of Wash­ing­ton, which takes “trendy” as a com­pli­ment, isn’t will­ing to be ruled by the lat­est nutritional fad, the aver­sion to ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food. By 54 per­cent to 46 per­cent, vot­ers Tues­day re­jected an at­tempt to re­quire “franken­foods,” so-called, to bear a scar­let let­ter. Ini­tia­tive 522 would have made Wash­ing­ton the first state to re­quire seeds and foods with ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied in­gre­di­ents to be la­beled. Restau­rant food, or­ganic food and medicine would have been ex­empt.

La­bels to help those al­ler­gic to peanuts or dairy have ben­e­fits, be­cause an ana­phy­lac­tic re­ac­tion to nuts, though rare, can be fatal. The dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods ex­ist only in the mind. There’s con­crete ev­i­dence that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied seeds have been sav­ing lives and help­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

The mod­i­fi­ca­tions of many crops, in­clud­ing cot­ton, en­able farm­ers to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the use of pes­ti­cides. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied wheat forms the ba­sis of the “green rev­o­lu­tion” in South Asia, which in­creases wheat yields, en­sur­ing that mil­lions won’t go to bed hun­gry. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied va­ri­eties of food crops have boosted the food sup­ply in the de­vel­op­ing world, im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life.

Ad­vo­cates in­sist they have a “right to know” whether they’re eat­ing food with al­tered genes. Per­haps, but the right to know must not be co­erced by the state. The la­bel­ing of gluten-free foods serves a va­ri­ety of needs, but the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion wasn’t sat­is­fied with that la­bel. The agency im­posed a one-size-fits-all rule that’s rid­dled with prob­lems.

Any man­u­fac­turer can la­bel a prod­uct gluten­free with­out test­ing if the fi­nal prod­uct meets FDA’s fairly clear guide­lines, but man­u­fac­tur­ers ei­ther can­not or will not test in­gre­di­ents sourced else­where. They can skirt the re­quire­ment by say­ing a prod­uct “does not use gluten prod­ucts” in­stead of us­ing the clear and reg­u­lated term “gluten-free.”

So merely re­quir­ing a la­bel is no guar­an­tee that con­sumers will be bet­ter in­formed. That goes dou­ble for the more neb­u­lous con­cept of “ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied” in­gre­di­ents, where the process of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion alone can add sig­nif­i­cantly to cost with­out any clear health ben­e­fits.

Con­sumers who must know whether their gro­ceries have been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied, a vote with their pocket book is likely to be far more ef­fec­tive than vot­ing at the bal­lot box. That will keep down the cost of turnips and car­rots and ’taters for ev­ery­one.

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