During the 1960s, labels of any kind were abhorred by many for the way they so fixedly identified objects and people, limiting them to a static condition that idealistic New Agers whose cultural influence spread far in that era could hardly abide.
The world in those halcyon days was seen as free flowing, and to harden it by applying nouns was derided as almost brutal.
Anti-scientific as the movement against everyday "labeling" was, it took a long time to subside. And, after the terrorist strikes of September 11, such peacenik concerns may seem nothing more than quaint.
In biotechnology, the notion of labeling brings immediately to mind the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, a controversy that spread from Europe to the U.S. and has far from completely dwindled, even as the national focus has shifted again, largely due to terrorist threats and moves made to guard against them.
Crops grown by way of agricultural biotechnology have been adopted more and more during the past seven years, says the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think tank funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, and three-quarters of all GM crops in the world are being planted in the U.S. today.
In 2001, three main biotech crops were planted in the U.S.: soybeans, 68 percent of which were GM; cotton, 69 percent GM; and corn, 26 percent GM. Worldwide, plantings of biotech crops in 2001 added up to 130 million acres, up 19 percent from 2000, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
Some industry estimates say up to 70 percent of all packaged foods could be produced to include genetically modified ingredients, and the FDA requires labeling information for a new food variety such as GM foods only if its composition, nutritional content or likelihood of causing allergic reactions differs from an already available counterpart.
"That's plenty good enough," said Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "Not only is it plenty good enough, it's the only way to make sure that ideas for labeling do not wind up leading to a result opposite to what they are claimed to be intended to do."
Activists, of course, disagree. They insist that consumers have a right to know about GMOs in any of their food, while the industry argues the FDA rules are good enough, and putting needless labels on all GMO-made products would only boost expenses, inevitably passed on to consumers in the form of higher-priced goods.
Numbers related to that hypothetical situation are hard to come by, although a Canadian study fixed the cost of mandatory food labeling for consumers in that country at $700 million to $950 million per year, says the Pew group, which has maintained an interest in the issue of labeling much of the fight over which has shifted from the federal to the state level. (See BioWorld Financial Watch, Jan. 21, 2002.)
Pew, which is non-profit and bills itself as nonpartisan, insists it takes no stand on the matter but wants to "help promote dialogue and a better understanding of the issues," said director Mike Rodemyer late last month at the initiative's fourth "policy dialogue" in Chicago.
"These are part of a series," said D.J. Nordquist, director of communications for Pew. "This is probably the last one we're going to do."
The event offered rather predictable views from both sides of the fence. Austin Sullivan, senior vice president of corporate relations for General Mills Inc., said, "With no manufacturing or consumer benefit to offer and only downside risk of adverse consumer behavior, mandatory labeling would lead manufacturers to ask their suppliers for nonbioengineered ingredients only," resulting not only in higher costs but also less choice.
Another result, Sullivan said, "would be to eliminate choice and retard the development of a potentially beneficial technology."
On the other hand, Craig Winters, director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, declared consumers are "being used as human guinea pigs in this massive feeding experiment."
Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, took a less extreme view.
"Consumers definitely want to know information about this and from that perspective we'd like to get it to them," he said on the panel. "Labeling is one way to get it to them. It may not be the only way to get it them."
Jaffe added that, although labeling is something consumers say in surveys they would like, "but when asked to say how much more they'd be willing to pay for this, or how does it compare to other things they want labeled, and things like that, there's a small but significant percentage of the population who cares about this a lot."
There's a "large percentage," however, that "would like to see it, but when asked about how much they'd pay for it, they really won't pay for it."
During the panel discussion, Jaffe suggested a possible form of labeling would be to place a symbol next to ingredients, signifying when they are genetically modified.
Giddings calls it "a nonsensical proposal, [because] something as simple as that is not possible to do without misleading the consumer," who still wouldn't know what, if anything, genetically modified means but who might be riled into suspicion by the use of the symbol itself.
Nordquist pointed out the general problem, too: Consumers may say in surveys they want to know if GMOs are involved in producing their food, but "people will say yes to anything. The real question is, how are they going to process that information?"
Giddings said "there isn't an item of food that appears on a dinner plate in the industrial world that is not genetically modified, except for maybe a few wild-caught fish."
Genetic modification, he noted, has long been done in the form of "artificial selection by humans who didn't have the faintest idea what they were doing," as opposed to modern methods tested and verified by science.
If anything, Giddings told BioWorld Financial Watch, "you'd want something to [indicate] conventional food, not GMO food," since the former is produced and kept fresh by the use of such methods as irradiation and pesticides.
BIO was conspicuously absent from the Pew panel. Nordquist explained her choices had to be careful, because of the size of the group.
"This particular policy dialogue was a food issue, and we can only have one strong 'pro' and one strong 'anti,'" she said. "It seemed like, with this topic, it was better to have a food company. It's not Monsanto that has to label its products, it's General Mills. This is a brand issue, and there are only four slots [on the panel]."
The panel's pro-labeling figure was Winters, director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food. Another member, from academe, was Jonathan Frenzen, the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, who has done research on the impact of social factors on markets.
Jaffe told BioWorld Financial Watch he is only "looking for a system that works. In Europe, the system has eliminated [genetically engineered] ingredients. It's not like they marketed them and nobody bought them." Companies, he said, have "given in to the activists."
Last week, the GMO rules became even more stringent in Europe, with the Parliament voting to tighten rules related to traceability of such ingredients and labeling.
The Parliament reduced the GM products allowed in human animal food from a proposed 1 percent to 0.5 percent, although the industry organization EuropaBio argued the European Union should permit the presence of trace amounts of such products from trading partners, if safety has been approved by the exporting country using EU standards.
In labeling, the Parliament supported a proposal to label GM-derived products that are identical to their non-GM counterparts but EuropaBio said that, since no DNA or novel protein of GMO origin is present in these products, no scientific verification is possible and the system will be open to fraud.
In U.S. labeling, Jaffe said, a tiny indicator on the label, such as "GE" near the corner of the brand name, might work.
"If it's true that 60 [percent] to 70 percent of processed foods have GE ingredients, if you were to put a symbol on all of those tomorrow, I don't think the companies would be able to take those ingredients out and I don't think the activists would be able to protest, because there wouldn't be very much else left to buy, unless everybody went to Whole Foods and bought the organic cereals," Jaffe said.
Anyway, he said, "if you listen to the food companies, they say their brand is what sells the product, and a GE label isn't going to keep most people from buying Cheerios or corn flakes. They'll say, 'I've been eating corn flakes my whole life, and I like them, and I'll eat them now.'"
Unlike Giddings, Jaffe doesn't like the U.S. labeling policy as it stands.
"The problem with the current voluntary system, as the FDA states in its draft guidance, is that there isn't a lot of information for consumers no products are voluntarily going to say that they have GMOs," he said.
What's more, some of the GM-free claims do not provide accurate information. Jaffe's group wrote a letter to the FDA last year about seven products with GM-related claims on their labels. One was a wheat cereal that claimed to have "no genetically modified organisms in it," he said, noting the "organisms" would not be present in the wheat "and there's no genetically engineered wheat out there anyway."
Another example was a tortilla chip that declared on the label it contained no GMOs, and was "pure food" as a result.
"The gist was, they were trying to suggest their product was safer or better," Jaffe said, noting that the FDA took enforcement action about the labels, asking the companies to either change them or explain themselves.
What Jaffe and others are trying to do, Giddings said, "is carve out some middle ground, and there isn't a middle ground between what's defensible and the bogeymen [activists are] trying to set loose."
He said he favors new ideas, but only "if someone can come forward with a proposal for labeling that offers consumers more freedom of choice than they have now, and safeguard the public good better, and enabling fraud that people with evil intent [might perpetrate]."
But, he said, he's not expecting much to upgrade existing methods of keeping food safe.
"Around the world, nothing has had the success our [methods have] had," Giddings said. "We can't find a way to improve what's in place today."