The Role of Government in the Labeling of GM Food


Camille Emma


Camille Emma (2010). Case Study #9-9, "The Role of Government in the Labeling of GM Food". In: Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Fuzhi Cheng (editors), "Food Policy for Developing Countries: Case Studies." 16 pp.


Food labels embody a range of attributes: a salad bag may be "organic," a yogurt may be "low fat," and potato chips may be "all natural." Each year, food companies create new and innovative labels to market their products. In 2008 in the United States, 22,566 new food products were introduced to the market. More than 100,000 types of food products line the shelves of supermarkets and wholesale stores (Economic Research Service, USDA 2009c). With so many different foods and labels, how do consumers make choices, and who ensures that these labels are trustworthy and helpful to consumers? The U.S. government created the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a regulatory agency "responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled" (FDA 2008). The FDA works with Congress, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other governing bodies to set food-labeling standards. The FDA does not preapprove labels but has the right to request changes or removal of labels that do not meet its specifications. Therefore, food manufacturers have some freedom in labeling and can work creatively to provide consumers with the information needed to make purchasing decisions (FDA 2008).

Opinion polls in the early 2000s suggested that the majority of U.S. consumers want to know if their food products contain genetically modified material. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are the result of gene transfer technology. They are used in agriculture to create plants with traits that are desirable to farmers, consumers, or other food system parties. The United States has no government-sponsored food-labeling schemes that state whether or not food products contain GM material. Government regulations do, however, prohibit the presence of genetically engineered material in food that carries the government-approved label assuring that food is produced using organic production processes. Thus, consumers who wish to avoid GM material can buy organic food. Another option for consumers who do not want to buy food that may contain GMOs is to select foods labeled "GMO-free." Such labeling is organized by civil society groups and food companies. To carry the label, foods must comply with standards set by the organizers. The government does not regulate the label but may intervene if there is evidence that the label is misleading. A new initiative for voluntary labeling of "GMO-free" food raises the question of what role—if any—the government should play in monitoring and implementing labeling related to GMOs.

Your assignment is to advise the U.S. government on whether it should engage in the labeling of GMO or GMO-free foods or monitor voluntary labeling organized by the private sector and civil society, and if so, how it should proceed. Would you give the same advice to a developing country? If not, how would it differ?

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