What’s in a label?

Marion Nestle’s post Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too! has been passed around the internet many times in the past few days by opponents of biotechnology. I appreciate their desire to know more about what they are eating, and I appreciate that Dr. Nestle admitted that “GM labeling as an issue of consumer choice, not of science”. However, I think that efforts to mandate labeling are misguided. To help demonstrate why seeking mandatory labeling of ingredients derived from GM crops is inappropriate, please consider the following example:
I am a vegetarian (for a variety of reasons), and avoid animal by-products. One such product is gelatin. The sources of gelatin are diverse, including cow hide, pig skin, animal bones, fish and even corn. There are a number of products that are similar to gelatin but are not animal derived that may be labeled as gelatin, such as agar-agar from seaweed and hypromellose from wood or cotton. Glycerin, found in products as diverse as shampoo and candy, can be derived from animal fat or vegetable oils. Don’t even get me started on rennet, which can be derived from animals and plants as well as GM and non-GM bacteria and fungi.
My desire to avoid animal by-products is not based on science – there are no health dangers associated with animal glycerine or rennet from calves stomachs when compared to their non-animal derived counterparts. Still, I have a right to avoid them if I so chose. So, I think that having a “contains animal by-products” label would be wonderful. It would save me a lot of time and worry, as well as allowing me to select food and hygiene products with ingredients of unknown sources that I currently avoid.
Despite my strong wishes for a “contains animal by-products” label, I acknowledge that I have no basis on which to demand mandatory labeling from the USDA or FDA or any other US government agency. I do have a right to ask food companies through petitions, letters, etc to avoid animal-by products and to use such a label. Any prospective labels would only be appropriate if voluntary. Instead of “contains animal by-propducts”, it would be far more appropriate to have a “does not contain animal by-products” or “vegetarian” label.
Why shouldn’t the labels be mandatory?
If I accidentally consume a product that contains animal derived ingredients, I (probably) won’t get sick. This is completely unlike labels for allergens such as “may contain tree nuts”. If a person with a nut allergy accidentally eats a product that contains even a tiny amount of nuts, they may die.
Became there is no health reason to avoid animal by-products, there is no justification for a mandatory label. Such a label would place an unwarranted burden on producers. Companies would have to find suppliers of ingredients that have single sources, when most suppliers simple acquire the least expensive source of a given ingredient. They would have to redesign their labels to include the sources, or at minimum, add the “contains animal by-products” label (depending on how this hypothetical mandate was written). Adding this burden to producers would increase the cost of food and hygiene products, which causes a burden to consumers. Another downside of mandated labeling is that the label could loose meaning over time. Companies may choose to avoid all the research and special sourcing of ingredients by simply claiming their products contain animal by-products even when they do not.
Of course, a company may decide that all of this work, time, and money is worth it. They may decide that the added benefit to their consumers justifies an increse of cost of the product. They may find that consumers want more information about their products and that providing this information increases sales. These voluntary labels are unlikely to lose meaning over time, and may even become a primary reason why consumers choose one company over another. Burt’s Bees is one such company that is cultivating these such consumers. With Burt’s Bees products, I can easily see the source of each ingredient on their label. If I want more information, I can view their Ingredients Glossary online. The label adds value to the product as well as adding cost to the product, and plenty of customers are willing to pay more.
Consumers have a right to choose what products they do or do not want to buy, and should make those choices known in the marketplace through the products they buy and communication with companies. They do not have a right to force their choices on everyone else, particularly when it will directly affect the cost of food and hygiene items. Countries that mandate labels for reasons that are not based on health and safety are putting the desires of the few over the needs of the many.
Mandating a “contains genetically modified ingredients” label is very similar to a hypothetical “contains animal by-products” label. A voluntary “does not contain genetically modified ingredients” is very similar to a hypothetical “does not contain animal byproducts” or “vegetarian” label. Many voluntary labels already exist and are a great way for consumers to exercise their freedom to choose. The Non GMO Project is an example of 3rd party labeling for products that do not contain genetically engineered foods and the European Vegetarian Union is an example of 3rd party labeling for products that do not contain animal byproducts.
I disagree with any efforts to prevent voluntary labeling, even when I disagree with the reasons for or validity of such labels, even when I think such labels do more harm than good. In a free market system, producers should have a right to add any truthful label to their product that they want. The more labels the better!


  1. But as a philosophy-conscious eater I must impose my particular food desires on everyone else!

    Good post, did you notice her post on Whole Foods’ decision to require producers to test and verify non-GE status? In that post, she framed Whole Foods’ action as giving consumers a choice… but Whole Foods had already banned genetically engineered ingredients, even from product packaging (corn plastics). But if Whole Foods really wanted to give consumers a choice, shouldn’t they allow, say, Bt sweet corn in a labeled bin so the customers can decide for themselves? Otherwise, it’s Whole Foods deciding what its regular customers should be allowed to buy in their store.

    I didn’t know you try to avoid animal byproducts, I thought it was just the meat end of things. How do you feel about Honey?

  2. Karl, I have to admit I don’t subscribe to Dr. Nestle’s feed. I probably should, but her anti-science, anti-discussion attitude frustrates me. I see blogging as an invitation for conversation – not as a soapbox from which to make speeches (hopefully I don’t get too speechy/preachy).

    I wish I could choose Bt sweet corn. Some of the ears I’ve harvested this summer were so gross! One day, I shucked 2 ears for dinner and had 5+ species of insects trying to escape the kitchen sink! Now I shuck in the field. I’ve had buggy ears from the grocery store too. I just cross my fingers that there aren’t any dangerous fungi growing in the insect damaged kernels – some corn pests leave bites too small to see, so I can’t pick those kernels out. It makes me nervous.

    Mmm, honey. Are you gonna send me some? 🙂 Honey is sooo wonderful, particularly when you can taste where it’s from. The best part is that it’s sort of a byproduct to the ecosystem services of pollination provided by bees. I also like the fact that smaller farms can essentially use them as a side source of income with relatively low input cost. I’m ok with the idea that some of the little guys get squooshed in the honey harvesting process.

    Animal by-products are sort of a conundrum for me. They are by-products, so their use isn’t the impetus for the whole environmentally disastrous meat industry, but even still, I don’t like the idea of eating them. It’s just icky. I don’t have a science based reason, and I think I’m ok with that. By avoiding the by-products, I’m voting with my $ for products that label the sources of their ingredients and for products that use plant sourced ingredients.

  3. I wouldn’t characterize Nestle’s attitude as anti-science, however, I have noticed that she makes some very odd statements about certain aspects of food politics, as well as genetic engineering. For instance, she accuses the systematic study that found no overall nutritional advantage to organic crops of "nutritionism" but has never said the same thing of members of the organic movement that make the very nutritional claims it undermined.

    On genetic engineering, as you noted from her response to my question, she favors politics over science, and so far there has been no response to my response. It’s not like she doesn’t read her blog’s comments, she read my response that is for sure, but it showed that her answer was based on a limit grasp of peoples real attitudes toward the technology. Indeed, I recall a post on her blog where she wondered, aloud, whats in it for farmers? (Maybe a lot of them make more money with them?) Many of her questions on this topic can be answered with a little time doing research, and it’s not like she doesn’t have the ability to do so, and she has the institutional access to peer-reviewed journals as well.
    I suspect there is a non-scientific reason (or reasons) underpinning her opinion of genetic engineering, akin to her opinion on labeling. It is important to get these reasons out on the table for examination, and I’m surprised she was so forthcoming about the labeling issue.

    On bees, I like to consider how many more bees are able to live well in the hives we manage versus out in the wild. Indeed, I responded to an "Is Honey Vegan?" article in the local food co-op in Davis, suggesting that people get to know some beekeepers and talk to them about how they manage their bees. I argued that since bees are necessary for the pollination of many crops, that a consistent vegan could not purchase those crops as much as they could purchase honey. "There is no such thing as a vegan almond." 🙂

    As for a jar of honey, Frank is swinging through town, I’ll see if he can ‘courier’ a jar out with him!

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