Is there a smart phone solution to all of the relentless fights over GMO labeling? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seems to think there might be.
Over the summer, Vilsack said this:
The solution sounds simple enough. Each food item at the grocery store would have some type of label or scan code through which consumers could use their smart phones to access a wide array of information regarding those products. As an article on the New York Times indicates, it is a high technology solution that has built-in protection against distortion.
On the one hand, this seems like a viable approach to the labeling question. It could give the customer information not only about nutritional content, but also about where the product was grown, how it was grown, and where it originated.
It also doesn’t single out one type of production. As it is now, those hungry for more labels simply want to out a food’s status as containing GMO crops. Such an approach may create these so-called “single issue” consumers, who basically make purchasing decisions based on whether the product contains biotechnology. In that case, other issues get completely ignored. What if that grapefruit juice doesn’t contain any GMOs, but the company supplying the non-GMO grapefruits cut down 1,000 acres of the rain forest to produce it? Which is more important, the rain forest or someone’s irrational fear of biotechnology?
|Go ahead. Scan me.|
But as you can imagine, such a huge amount of information would quickly become useless on any foods that are processed. Sure, a consumer picking up a Michigan apple at the store could quickly scan the label and get access to information about where the farm was located and what production methods were used by the farmer. However, that gets a lot more complicated when that same customer wants to know that information about his loaf of bread. It would be easy enough to include the bakery where it was put together and baked, but what about all of those separate ingredients? Who really has the time to read about the origin and production methods on a food product that contains a dozen ingredients? At that point, information overload makes the scanner idea moot.
Logistically, there are issues as well. Are the scanner labels mandatory? Who pays for them? Who runs the app where all the information is stored? Do we make the USDA or FDA control it and put this cost on taxpayers? How do we make sure information on international products is accurate? What if they don’t provide a label at all?
However, as the author of the New York Times blog mentions in his article, and which I also agree, there is no way food activists will accept a smart phone solution to the labeling problem. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t serve their end goals.
Although labeling supporters claim that slapping a GMO label on produce is about a consumer’s “right to know,” we know that the campaigns are really about ending the use of biotechnology. These groups want to take advantage of consumers that aren’t really paying that much attention. By associating biotechnology with a negative connotation, they hope that labels will scare consumers into other choices. If the market drops out from under these products, who the heck wants to use them or grow them?
A label with built-in scanning technologies would mess with their scheme. Yes, it could reveal production methods, but that might not be the most important thing at all. Whether or not a product uses genetically engineered technologies is, quite frankly, the last thing consumers really need to know about. Rather, the more valuable information would include where the product was produced, when it was harvested, potential allergens, and methods of processing. Given biotech’s proven safety record, there is no reason for the labels to reveal its presence prominently given all the other information available.
Overall, electronic labels that can tell us more about products – food or otherwise – than we ever needed to know is probably in our future anyway. But I don’t see this as ending any fights over biotechnology.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.