Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods: The Phantom Risks of “Frankenfood” [Part II of II]

Posted By Maryam Sabour

Mandatory labeling of GM foods continues to be hotly debated. On the one side, proponents for labeling argue it is a consumer’s “right to know”. They advocate that the precautionary principle should be used as a basis to implement the labeling regulation, as the long-term risks of GM foods are unknown. On the other side, Health Canada’s official stance on GM foods is that they are safe for consumption and no study has provided evidence of health risks. In Part I, the scope and purpose of labeling in Canadian legislation was discussed. It was found that labeling GM foods could give consumers an erroneous impression of GM products, with labels coming off as warnings rather than information. In this final section, we will take a closer look at the notion of consumer perception and risk. We will go beyond the consumer level to consider the societal consequences associated with GM labeling.Consumer Perception of Risk: Perceived vs. Actual Risk

If mandatory labeling regulations were in place for GM foods, would it enhance the consumer’s choice on decision-making? To answer this it is important to assess the perceived risk vs. the actual risk of consuming GM foods and which risk is behind the encouragement of regulation of GM food labeling. Perceived risks of GM foods relate to the uncertainty of the long-term consequences of consumption. That is, labeling for perceived risks is labeling for unknown risks. Actual risks are based on empirical data and scientific judgment. When focusing on perceived risk, much of it is fear based thus, “the factual basis of that fear needs scrutiny”, in other words, the actual risks must be considered. GM breeding processes are “tested or vetted for human and environmental safety which means that GM crops are better characterized than conventionally bred crops”. Thus to regulate GM labeling to reduce fear, when there is no risk, only reinforces fear. Just as the detailed scientific explanations of GM breeding processes are outside the scope of this paper, it is also unknown to the average consumer. Thus, a “genetically modified” label would not inform a consumer any better of the inherent risk (or lack thereof) associated with GM products. Therefore mandatory labeling does not provide valuable information to consumers; in fact it may be more harmful than helpful by creating uncertainty and confusion.

As a result, when considering risk assessment, it is imperative that the assessment is based on “peer-reviewed, pure or paradigm science, not junk science; phantom risk, and not public opinion.” Stephen Breyer emphasizes the importance of regulations focusing on areas where there is a “real scientific basis for their validity”. Breyer illustrates how there is a serious “knowledge gap” between the public and experts which lead the public to overestimate certain risks and “this incongruity leads to the expenditure of valuable public resources in the wrong order of priorities.” In terms of GM foods, due to lack of understanding of the GM process, there “perceived risks” has led to low consumer confidence. This consumer skepticism is what is influencing policy makers and thus these misconceptions and uneducated public perceptions are driving politicians towards regulation of GM labeling. Going back to Breyer’s concept however, more deference should be paid to scientific experts when conducting a risk assessment. Consequently, “the appropriate approach on a regulatory issue should not be determined by “policy by polling” but by what is most likely to enhance the public welfare in the long run.”

Consequences of Regulation: Societal Impact

Proponents of mandatory labeling argue that the precautionary principle provides a valid basis for governments to implement the Regulation. At the first reading of Bill C-517, it was argued that it is impossible to expect consumers to know all the risks associated with different food products. As a result, it is the role of the government to set the basic rules and principles for proper risk management. Although I do agree that the government plays the primary role in risk management, I do not agree that the precautionary principle is a valid basis for implementing mandatory labeling. The mandatory labeling of GM foods does not adequately minimize risks: if GM foods are unsafe, then labeling them will not effectively reduce the harm. Rather, if GM foods are actually harmful, then the genetic engineering techniques used to make them should be reconsidered. Simply labeling potentially harmful products does not minimize risk.

Aaron Wildavsky provides a valid argument against the precautionary principle. He argues that trial and error is the best way to manage risks in a technologically advanced society such as ours because the precautionary principle considers perceived risk rather than actual risk. Thus, the function of regulation should be to balance technological progress and technological precaution. By enforcing mandatory labeling requirements on GM foods, technological progress is stifled and the potential future benefits to human health and society are lost.

The precautionary principle also lacks a cost-benefit analysis, which is the cornerstone of any risk analysis. The mandatory labeling of GM foods would create significant costs for producers, which in turn leads to higher prices for consumers. These include: separating GM from non-GM foods, accidental contamination of non-GM crops by GM crops, added labeling and storage costs for farmers as well as separating equipment for planting and harvesting to avoid contamination.

The benefits of mandatory labeling would be that consumers have the option of choosing between GM and non-GM foods in order to defer potential risks associated with GM foods. However, as consumers are not well informed about the process of genetic modification, the information would be invaluable and would likely further dilute the abundance of information on food labels.

In contrast, GM crops help improve global food security and the health of farmers by reducing the use of pesticides. The establishment of mandatory labeling requirements would discriminate against this technology and stifle its advancement. In considering the potential benefits of GM foods, governments should avoid mandatory labeling because the advantages outweigh the alleged risks.

Concluding Remarks

The current safety measures enforced by the Canadian government to evaluate GM foods are sufficient. Mandatory labeling should not be imposed as no actual risk has been found to date by the scientific community. Regulations of GM foods should not be swayed by public perceptions as they are based on misconceptions and do not reflect the actual risks associated with GM foods. Deference needs to be given to scientific experts. Rather than misleading consumers with mandatory labeling, governments should strive to correct the misconceptions surrounding GM products by raising awareness of their benefits. “The history of technology shows that many innovations after strong initial rejection are subsequently widely diffused…especially with regard to risk reduction.” As public perceptions shift, establishing consensus at a global level will become more feasible.

Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods: The Phantom Risks of “Frankenfood” [Part I of II]

Posted By Maryam Sabour

In 2011, a private members’ bill was introduced that would have amended the Canadian Food and Drugs Act. The amendments included mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods and would have held the Minister of Health responsible for publishing a list of all foods that have genetically modified components. This bill died with much controversy over these so-called “frankenfoods”.

GM foods first hit the Canadian market in 1994, and today about “70% of all the items in grocery stores that are packaged, bottled or frozen have some GM ingredients.” Non-governmental organizations promote statistics such as “80% of Canadians want labeling of GM foods,” but this phrasing begs the question of whether the average Canadian knows what GM means and understands the associated risks.

Labeling legislation exists to ensure that consumers have the necessary information readily available to assess the risk for themselves; thus, lawmakers must consider whether GM foods present enough risk to mandate a label for this information. I argue that the Canadian government should not implement regulation for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. In Part I of this two-part blog series, I analyse the purpose and scope of labeling in Canadian legislation. In Part II, I conduct a risk assessment on a consumer level, emphasizing the effects of consumer skepticism and the public’s perception of risk versus actual risk. I will then analyze the risk on a societal level to illustrate the reasons why the precautionary principle proves an ineffective approach in consideration of the social and economic consequences mandatory labeling of GM foods would entail.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Food Labeling: Scope and Purpose

Labeling is the primary means of communication between producers and consumers”; it helps consumers make informed decisions when selecting one product over another. For the purposes of my argument, I will divide labeling into two categories: mandatory and voluntary (or social). Mandatory labeling is used to either mitigate the risk incurred from using products or to preclude misrepresentations about products.[1] Conversely, social labeling makes voluntary positive claims about credence goods to promote a socio-economic, cultural or ecological trait associated with a process related to the good.[2] Social labeling includes environmental labels (e.g. rain forest friendly), social labels (e.g. no child labour), green labels (e.g. recyclable), and agriculture labels, under which “non-GM products” currently fall categorized as “no GMO”.[3] A change in regulations to require mandatory labeling for GM foods would presume a material and substantial risk associated with the consumption of GM foods. To date, however, no empirical data exists to substantiate this claim.

A mandatory label to distinguish GM foods from non-GM foods would not improve consumer protection beyond the precautionary protocols already in place. Under Canadian legislation, Health Canada is responsible for developing policies and standards related to the health and safety of labeling under the Act. Genetically modified foods are considered “novel foods” under the Food and Drugs Act Regulations and must follow stringent safety requirements. The safety requirements take an ex ante approach of risk assessment as outlined under Division 28 of Part B of the Food and Drugs Regulations (Novel Foods). Manufacturers and importers of GM food in Canada must submit data to Health Canada for a pre-market safety assessment. Only after rigorous assessment and approval will Health Canada class the food as safe for consumption. Labeling requirements are only necessary for special changes that consumers must know, such as major compositional or nutritional changes. As a result of the safety measures in place to screen products before they enter the market, no risks can be associated with GM food and there is no need to distinguish between GM and non-GM food. Labeling is therefore not required.

Not only are GM labels unnecessary given the safety precautions undertaken by Health Canada, but forcing companies to label foods containing GM components would actually contradict current legislation. Section 5 of the Food and Drugs Act states: “no person shall label….any food in a manner that is false, misleading…or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value…merit or safety”. Forcing companies to label foods as “genetically modified” would give an erroneous impression to consumers because it seems to warn rather than inform. The label would give consumers the impression that there is a risk associated with the consumption of the product, even though no such risk has been scientifically proven. Studies conducted so far have not provided evidence of health risks, and Health Canada’s official stance on GM foods is that they are safe for consumption.

In Part II, I will consider whether mandatory labeling regulations would in fact enhance consumer choice. As no empirical data has ever suggested that risks exist with consuming GM foods, creating associations with risk – by labeling, for instance – is misleading. A short contrast of the perceived risks against actual risks will emphasize the potential consequences of mandatory labeling for GM foods. A wider approach is also taken in evaluating the effects of labeling GM foods by considering the broader societal impacts and exploring the notion of the precautionary principle. Finally, a recommendation is made for reducing consumer skepticism and encouraging informed public perception.

[1] Stan Benda, GM food labels: is it the need to know or the right to know – label what and why? (PHD Thesis, Osgoode Hall Law School, 2009) [unpublished].

[2] Ibid at 354.

[3] Ibid at 355.