Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

Proposition 37 Isn't About Transparency

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This Tuesday, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 37, a ballot initiative which would require special labeling of foods produced with genetically engineered ingredients. Supporters argue that such a measure is a simple matter of transparency which is necessary so that consumers can make informed decisions.

Critics say that the proposition is intended to scare consumers rather than inform them. UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote of the initiative’s backers, “They don’t want the ‘genetically engineered’ label to merely provide information. They want it to be a warning – the equivalent for GM food of the cancer warning on cigarette boxes.” Writing in The Los Angeles Times, self-proclaimed “health-conscious foodie” Alexandra LeTellier agreed, “GMO labels would be warnings, not just advisories.”

The initiative’s backers insist that the critics have it wrong. According to an article on the Yes on 37 campaign’s website, “No warning label would be required. Rather, the words ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ or ‘may be partially produced with genetic engineering’ would be required on the back of the package – similar to what is now required for ingredient or allergen labeling.” Michael Pollan has likewise argued, “This is just about transparency and information. The idea that a label implies danger is false.”

In a limited sense, the supporters are right. In isolation, the label language required by Proposition 37 would be strictly factual. It’s not like the measure would require that a skull and crossbones appear on the front of packages of GM foods.

Fat free labels: Marketing or "transparency and information"? Yet labels can mean different things depending on the context. If anybody should understand this, it’s Pollan. Although I have been critical of Pollan’s In Defense of Food, this is one point he gets right in that book. Pollan argues that a fear of fat led American eaters to incorrectly conclude that fat-free and low-fat foods, such as the Snackwell’s cookie, were necessarily healthy. In this way, labels like “fat free” effectively became assurances of a food’s wholesomeness.

While it is only by gross oversimplification that Pollan is able to argue that science-based nutritional advice “bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us,” it’s true that the “fat free” label took on additional meaning because of the public perception that fat was singularly harmful. After all, “fat free” is, in itself, a simple statement about the chemical composition of a food product. In itself, it doesn’t tell a grocery shopper anything about what will become of the person who eats that product.

With that in mind, suppose that Nabisco had issued a statement responding to In Defense of Food by explaining that the words “FAT FREE” on the fronts of the packages of Snackwell’s were not intended to suggest that the cookies were healthful but were merely included in the interest of “transparency and information.” It is an understatement to say that the foodies who today are most fervent in their support of Proposition 37 would not have found this argument compelling. Whatever the “fat free” label’s literal meaning, to people who believed fat to be uniquely unhealthy, it sent a message that a product was healthy. Nabisco was undoubtedly trying to exploit this.

A “fat free” label might seem different from a Proposition 37’s “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” label because a product’s fat content is printed elsewhere on the label, whereas information about the presence or absence of genetically engineered ingredients generally is not. However, as opponents of genetic engineering often point out, GM ingredients are found in upwards of seventy percent of processed foods. Unless labeled otherwise, it’s safe to assume that a processed food found in the store today “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.” Both labels have the effect of making certain information more conspicuous – rather than making more information available.

Just as Nabisco hoped that the fat free label would convince people of a product’s healthfulness, supporters of Proposition 37 hope to use labels to convince shoppers that certain products represent a health risk. This is particularly clear because the initiative’s proponents have been hard at work trying to convince consumers that GMOs are unsafe. For instance, on its Facebook page, the Yes on 37 campaign is currently highlighting a video that refers to “a killer tomato” and asks “If [a GMO] kills bugs, what will it do to us?”

The same campaign’s homepage currently claims “Genetically Modified Organisms are linked to allergies, organ toxicity, and other health problems.” Elsewhere on the site, the campaign claims, >A National Academy of Sciences report states that products of genetic engineering technology “carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.”

A reader who bothers to follow the link to the report finds that the quote about “unintended compositional changes” actually refers specifically to nongenetic engineering methods of plant breeding. With the campaign making these and many other scientifically unsound claims about the safety of GMOs, it is hard to take its supporters seriously when they insist that Proposition 37 won’t impose a warning label on genetically engineered foods.

Now, arguably Proposition 37’s warning lies less in the label it mandates than in the public discourse that some of its supporters have worked so hard to pollute. It is therefore fair to ask whether that warning really constitutes an argument against the proposition. For all the absurdity of a campaign claiming to stand for a “right to know” while spewing misinformation at every turn, a piece of legislation deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.

In that regard, the initiative’s flaw is that it offers a very small amount of information – it does not tell a consumer which ingredients are genetically engineered or how these ingredients are modified – while requiring that that information be positioned conspicuously on product labels, so as to suggest that that information should be important to consumers. While one could envision a world in which Proposition 37’s labels would not be received as a warning, it is harder to imagine these labels being rendered useful by improved public discourse about the subject of genetic engineering. Thus, attempts to sell Proposition 37 as a way to increase transparency are anything but transparent.