Friday, November 09, 2012

Let them eat genetically-modified cake

So California won't be labeling its GMOs. I've been slightly following this, and it's a funny issue. On the one hand, those against the labeling come across as very Evil Corporation. On the other, there are some very good reasons not to label things with info that's arguably of no consequence.

Because it isn't just that there will be those who for some actual reason care and are happy things are labeled, and those who don't care and no-harm-done. There will also be others - perhaps the majority of consumers - who do uninformed risk-assessment, and who assume if a product is labeled "without X," surely some expert found conclusively that X is basically distilled ebola virus. Remember Ms. "Everything really needs to be paraben-free for me. I mean, because if I’m going to smoke cigarettes, then I need to be aware of all the other bullshit I’m putting into my body."? That's how actual people think. People assume scientists, bureaucrats, someone knows what what's what, and inasmuch as they know where their food (or moisturizer) comes from, they've outsourced this investigation to others.

As I've mentioned here before, I'm not crazy about efforts to put the responsibility for knowing what's dangerous on individual consumers. But it seems especially problematic for there to be state-mandated labeling. If it's voluntary, it's presumably only impacting some limited sector of the economy, where the consumers are kinda-sorta informed on whichever issue. (Only kinda-sorta - see the people who would prefer to get produce from farms big enough to pay for organic certification than from small local farms.) But if everyone's getting these labels, there will - I promise - be people who think no-GMO means low-fat, or high fiber, or makes your hair shiny, or who knows. (See: the people who think kosher is organic.)

Where the government could be involved, I suppose, is in a) standardizing what whichever voluntary labels mean, b) banning labels that are misleading or inaccurate, and c) investigating whether whichever thing (organic, GMO'd-ness) actually means anything, and if so, actually going and taking whichever problematic stuff off shelves.

12 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

As it turns out, cake, whether GM or not, is already covered by a prior CA proposition dealing with food labels. I recently noticed a sign in Starbucks warning me not to drink coffee b/c it has something called "acrylamide" in it, which may be a carcinogen, and Sbux is required by Prop 65 to warn consumers of this pressing danger. Bad news though: nearly all baked goods contain acrylamide, as do many other heated and non-heated foods, so given how many croissants we've both likely consumed by now, we are doomed. To avoid all the carcinogenic chemicals that Prop 65 requires us to be warned about would require us to stop driving, living in buildings, drinking, and eating. I would say this is an example of an Extremely Useful Warnings.

PG said...

The CA proposition that mandated warnings about "carcinogens" has been carried out somewhat over-broadly, but I don't think there's anything wrong with having the government only ban things that are at unacceptably high risk levels (like lead paint), while having labeling for people to make their own choices about things at moderate risk levels.

Also, someone may want to avoid something more for ideological reasons than health ones; if I'm troubled about the systemic biodiversity problems with GMO, as well as how it can be used to oppress farmers due to patenting and sterility of seeds, I may want to be able to boycott it and labels would be helpful for that purpose.

Miss Self-Important said...

But if you're troubled enough to boycott, shouldn't the burden of researching be on you, and not on taxpayers to facilitate your boycott? Aren't there potentially thousands of consumer goods someone could want to boycott for ideological reasons - microchips from apartheid-promoting Israel, or products containing petroleum from woman-oppressing Gulf states, say - such that the principle of taxpayer-funded gov't labeling initiatives would be carried quite far indeed?

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, in light of recent events involving Chik-fil-A, labels indicating the panoply of religious and political views of the company that produced the item! (I'm actually imagining buying a can of Coke completely plastered in warning labels indicating all of these things so that there's no room for even the brand logo left.)

Phoebe said...

PG, I'm generally more on your wavelength politically, but here I'm with MSI. I think it's important for the government to make sure labels mean what they say (i.e. that GMO-free really is), but mandatory labeling creates problems. Sure, you, PG, have no doubt researched this, and come to an informed decision re: GMOs, and you may well only buy products with whichever labeling, and protest if that labeling is inaccurate. And, if what you think is wrong with these is not about your personal preferences but farming in general, you might protest for these to be banned.

But you haven't responded to my point about consumers generally, who won't know what this means (not necessary because they're not smart enough - they just won't choose to use their time in this way), and will make bad choices based on what they believe experts are leading them to do. It's not just people who already get what eating right means who will then go above and beyond. People will think no-GMO means healthy, that some GMO-free snack-cakes (perhaps called energy bars?) are a better choice than some vegetables or other fresh foods that have no such label. And they'll think they're doing right by eating "real food."

PG said...

But if you're troubled enough to boycott, shouldn't the burden of researching be on you, and not on taxpayers to facilitate your boycott? Aren't there potentially thousands of consumer goods someone could want to boycott for ideological reasons - microchips from apartheid-promoting Israel, or products containing petroleum from woman-oppressing Gulf states, say - such that the principle of taxpayer-funded gov't labeling initiatives would be carried quite far indeed?

Companies generally can't be trusted to give information about their products accurately unless there is a penalty, from that entity with a legal monopoly on force, for being inaccurate. This is the reason we have most regulatory agencies in the first place: in the state of laissez-faire nature, consumer self-informing did not seem to be deterring companies from leaving human fingers in the sausage, despite consumers' strong preference not to be cannibals.

I spent much of the past weekend trying to find some kitchenware that's not made in China, because when I ordered some online without regard for origin, it arrived in a condition indicative of poor quality control. And I certainly don't want the government to ban Chinese imports; aside from the trade war issue, for people less obsessed with setting a perfect Thanksgiving table for their mother-in-law, inexpensive flawed wares should be available. But I rely on the federal government's labeling schemes to tell me whether something is made in China, Portugal, France, Thailand, USA, etc. I certainly can't rely on the products' unregulated self descriptors, which frequently will be pretty misleading about origin (Le Creuset made in China, American Accents hecho en Mexico, etc.).

I think it's reasonable for consumers to do their own research and thinking about what labels *mean*, so if you see "made in Israel" you have to decide for yourself whether this bothers you instead of having the government tell you why you should or shouldn't be buying Israeli-made stuff. But I can't even begin that process if I don't have accurate basic information about the product's origin. Or in the food realm, if you're feeding a friend allergic to onions, you should check the content label of what you're buying and realize that scallions probably *also* are not OK. It is not the obligation of the people making the crab cakes to slap a huge "contains onions" label on the front when that information is perfectly accessible on the standard "contents" section. I'm pretty sure Coke cans have the product's contents, nutrition and origin already on there, with plenty of room left for polar bears.

It would absurd to ban everything that some people can't/won't consume when there are other people who are happy to do so even with full information. So I think giving people basic information, with the force of government to ensure its accuracy, is the method to maximize everyone's utility. I'd be fine with the GMO being noted at the "contents" part of the label, and I don't see why that would be much more expensive to taxpayers than our existing labeling requirements.

People will think no-GMO means healthy, that some GMO-free snack-cakes (perhaps called energy bars?) are a better choice than some vegetables or other fresh foods that have no such label. And they'll think they're doing right by eating "real food."

We don't really need to speculate, on what consumer behavior will, since there are plenty of products that already label as GMO-free (or organic, or whatever) in the U.S. The EU has mandated GMO labeling for years. So what's been the observable behavior of consumers -- have Frenchwomen taken up eating GMO-free snack cakes in lieu of veggies (or cigarettes)?

Phoebe said...

PG,

"Companies generally can't be trusted to give information about their products accurately unless there is a penalty, from that entity with a legal monopoly on force, for being inaccurate."

Which is a fine argument for the government regulating what these labels mean, making sure they mean what they claim. Not for demanding labels. Using "organic" as a parallel, there are standards for what can be called "organic," but consumers are permitted to assume that unless marked organic, things are not that. Why, exactly, wouldn't this work with GMOs?

"We don't really need to speculate, on what consumer behavior will [...]"

Indeed, which is why I gave a handful of examples of consumers making silly choices with the 'help' of labels. I could provide more examples from a trove of anecdotal evidence/Googling around for this sort of thing, but it's also common sense - you see that a product is "without X," that the packaging celebrates this fact, and you're bound to assume X is problematic, without necessarily even so much as wondering why. No MSG, no parabens, no sulfites in a shampoo, it all sounds more 'pure,' doesn't it? Cancels out whichever other 'impure' things are consumed.

Re: the rest...

Allergy labeling is quite different, I should think, than GMO labeling. Whichever silly decisions people make re: 'no gluten' ends up being overshadowed by the fact that there are people with celiac.

Country-of-origin, meanwhile, is also a bit different. Similar, because it often enough doesn't matter where things come from (or if quality is your concern, you can also just look at the thing, whatever it is, or rely on brand reputation), but different, because everything comes from somewhere. It's not about something containing or not containing X, thereby implying that there are problems with X. As in, it's not 'warning, made in place PG doesn't buy stuff from,' it's just 'made in X.' Someone else might especially prefer to support the Chinese economy. Whereas I don't believe anyone's actively seeking out parabens.

PG said...

Not for demanding labels.

Are you opposed to all mandatory labels on food, or just GMO labels? Like, do you also think that yogurt shouldn't have an ingredient label that says it is made of milk (and other ingredients), because duh isn't yogurt always made of milk?

Organic is a problematic comparison because (a) most literate adults nowadays know that the default for food isn't organic; and (b) more importantly, "organic" doesn't mean anything. It's intrinsically a marketing term that requires some body to get together to decide what it means. How much square footage of pasture, what maximum percentage of corn in the feed, etc. I have a friend who hates the whole concept because he clings stubbornly to the idea that if it has long carbon chains, it's organic (chemistry).

In contrast, "genetically-modified organism" seems reasonably clear. Did you directly manipulate the genes instead of patiently breeding different lines together like Mendel in his monk's garden? Then it's GM. GMO is also a recent innovation in agriculture (according to Wikipedia, first done in a lab in 1973), whereas keeping animals in tiny cages and feeding them bizarre crap has been around in America for at least as long as the FDA itself.

I don't know what a paraben is, so I can't say whether someone's seeking them out, but I would assume for pretty much anything there are tradeoffs. Now that I've been using sulfite-free hair products, I notice that my hair feels oily a lot faster than it used to, for the logical reason that not "stripping the hair of its natural oils" leads to the hair having more oil. If I were to fall on such hard financial times that I couldn't afford to spend $10/month on hair care, I'd probably go back to giant bottles of Pert Plus that cleaned so harshly, oil didn't dare come back to my hair for a week. And the fact that cheaper, hair-stripping shampoos contain sulfites is something a consumer can find out: it's right there with all the other mysterious chemicals.

Where people tend to make silly decisions -- not just on GMO, but also on organic, sugar-free, fat-free, etc. -- is when a fact about a product is used as marketing, i.e. slapped on the front in big letters, contrasting colors, exclamation points. That's when they ignore the government-required labels about nutrition and contents. I am skeptical that the silly behavior is seen as much in Europe, where GMO labeling is mandatory, standardized and not done quite as much as a marketing scheme.

Miss Self-Important said...

Wait, so are we disputing whether products should be labeled in general, or whether labels with warnings should be mandated? I was assuming we're not considering doing away with ingredients lists, but that the problem with such lists is that no one knows what sodium benzoate actually is, so that in addition to noting that it's in your product, the government should require you to explain its potential ill-effects. That's what Prop 65 does for carcinogens, and loosely what Prop 37 would've done for some GMOs.

The idea that we could expand warnings for the health-sensitive and future-potential-health-sensitive to warnings for the ideologically-sensitive strikes me as going far beyond "This product contains peanuts." There are almost no limits to what someone could want to avoid on ideological grounds, so which boycott preferences would be privileged by mandatory warning? The future-potential health peeps pose the difficulty of determining how many studies showing negative health correlation are necessary to establish grounds for alarm, but the ideological peeps have no baseline at all. Country of origin is not enough because presumably the intended boycotter doesn't want to be misled in purchasing a European-made product with some components from China, or some raw materials from Qatar. And what about those troubled by the labor practices of certain nations, or of certain companies, or by the charities or political campaigns to which they donate? Why not warnings about these things too, so that people don't unwittingly give their money to causes they oppose?

Phoebe said...

PG,

Labeling ingredients is about a) allergies, b) allowing personal nutrition decisions, and c) allowing people with whichever long-established-in-our-society food restrictions (kosher, vegetarian, to name two obvious ones) to avoid this or that.

"most literate adults nowadays know that the default for food isn't organic"

Why do you think this? And why is GMO anything less nebulous? Farmers have always altered crops - why does it matter if it's "natural" or not? Is there some absolute line defining "natural"? Why draw it there and not at foraged vs. farmed? Is "natural" less harmful? If so, cigarettes (some, at least) are better than artificially-preserved beauty products.

"And the fact that cheaper, hair-stripping shampoos contain sulfites is something a consumer can find out"

It's not about things being unknowable, so much as about consumers not turning every last thing into a research project.

(Side note: The new Japanese shampoo I got to go with the new miracle deep-conditioner was $9 for a small bottle. Sulfites. Works great.)

"I am skeptical that the silly behavior is seen as much in Europe"

Really? I'm going to hazard an informed guess that Europeans go in for this too. Do you really think there aren't Europeans who, for example, think soda is evil, but tobacco is fine? That organic food is important but one can slather on any skin cream in an elegant enough package?

Anyway, while I'm sure stuff like how big a label is matters, anything big or small that says "No X" or "Contains No X" - as opposed to something being just one more item on an ingredients list, or absent from it - sends a message. The message being, X is dangerous. If X isn't dangerous, and people are making risk assessments assuming it is, then that makes insisting on no-X labels a problem.

PG said...

so that in addition to noting that it's in your product, the government should require you to explain its potential ill-effects. That's what Prop 65 does for carcinogens, and loosely what Prop 37 would've done for some GMOs.

That may be true for Prop. 65 (googling Prop. 65 indicates it involves "clear and reasonable warnings"), but not for Prop. 37. Text of the proposed law that Yes on Prop. 37 would have enacted. Bit that would actually go into the Health and Safety Code: "110809. Disclosure With Respect to Genetic Engineering of Food
(a) Commencing July 1, 2014, any food offered for retail sale in California is misbranded if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed:
(1) In the case of a raw agricultural commodity on the package offered for retail sale, with the clear and conspicuous words “Genetically Engineered” on the front of the package of such commodity or, in the case of any such commodity that is not separately packaged or labeled, on a label appearing on the retail store shelf or bin in which such commodity is displayed for sale;
(2) In the case of any processed food, in clear and conspicuous language on the front or back of the package of such food, with the words “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”"

Perhaps I am missing something, but my reading of the statute is that you just have to put the words "genetically engineered" on the front or back of a package in "clear and conspicuous words," not that you have to summarize the current research about the harms of genetic engineering. The choice of language in the statute is also telling: unlike Prop. 65, it does't say you have to give a warning, just that you have to include certain words.

"Clear and conspicuous" is a well-established term in state and federal regulation of labeling and advertising. For example, the Truth in Lending Act says ads for consumer credit must include certain disclosures about the terms and conditions of credit, disclosures that are "clear and conspicuous" so that reasonable consumers can read (or hear) and understand the information. If you've ever seen or heard an ad for a credit or debit card, I doubt you could catch much in the way of warnings about the dangers of debt, just a reference to APR starting at an attractively low rate.

So given that Prop. 37 wouldn't have involved a warning, just a plain statement of whether there were GMOs in the food or not, I'm not going to get into speculation about about ideologically-based warnings. On a legal note, I'll point out that there are extensive regulations for country of origin labeling, particularly for complex goods like electronics, such that if you have materials largely from one place and final assembly largely in another place, often both will be noted. Look at the disclosures if you purchase a car, for example. I own a used Mini, and it involved components and assembly from Japan, UK and Germany. I know this not because I did any independent research on its origins, but because this fact is prominently displayed in the paperwork I was given as a purchaser. Layman-level summary of the regulations for labeling "country of origin" for products covered by the Textile and Wool Acts (usually not high-tech goods).

PG said...

And why is GMO anything less nebulous? Farmers have always altered crops - why does it matter if it's "natural" or not?

Because there's a really obvious difference between using technology that didn't even exist 40 years ago that involves splicing DNA and RNA, versus positioning two plants to cross-pollinate each other or putting a Brahman bull and an Angus cow in the same pasture. Just look at the definition in the proposed statute I linked above.

"(c) Genetically engineered. (1) “Genetically engineered” means any food that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of:
(A) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
(B) Fusion of cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, where the donor cells/protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic family, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.
(2) For purposes of this subdivision:
(A) “Organism” means any biological entity capable of replication, reproduction, or transferring genetic material.
(B) “In vitro nucleic acid techniques” include, but are not limited to, recombinant DNA or RNA techniques that use vector systems and techniques involving the direct introduction into the organisms of hereditary materials prepared outside the organisms such as micro-injection, macro-injection, chemoporation, electroporation, micro-encapsulation, and liposome fusion."

I fully agree that terms like "natural" or "organic" are nebulous. Pretty sure I said as much in my prior comment about the term "organic" being nearly useless without extensive definition. However, scientists know what "genetically modified" or "genetically engineered" means. It's not nebulous.

Really? I'm going to hazard an informed guess that Europeans go in for this too. Do you really think there aren't Europeans who, for example, think soda is evil, but tobacco is fine? That organic food is important but one can slather on any skin cream in an elegant enough package?

I was referring specifically to whether Europeans (and Japanese), with the advent of mandatory GM labeling, have assumed that GM means something radically different than what it actually means. I find it implausible that they did precisely because the labeling is standardized and mandatory, and thus not really useful as a marketing scheme. Whether Europeans are wildly silly about the risks of tobacco is an irrelevant question.