Food Labels: Learning from Europe

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You will recall that the FDA's 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading because the foods are no different. Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled. Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets. When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested. Most were not GM. But you have no way of knowing that.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM. Guess what? No problem.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods. The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90 percent of the soybeans and 50 percent of the corn grown in America is GM. Ingredients made from these foods--corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners--are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM. Guess what? No problem. Hershey's Reese's NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: "Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn." Here's a link to a photo of the label.

Hershey is an American company. If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no? Here's a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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