Let’s Talk Food Labeling

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The topic of GMOs seems to come up a lot these days. I’ve written about it in the past, and I like to bait people into debates about their merits. One issue that keeps coming up regarding GMOs is labeling: should GMOs be labeled? What would a labeling system look like, what would it mean, and how would it be used? While some companies have already started voluntarily labeling or excluding GMOs from their food products, what would it look like to have mandated food labeling? To find out, let’s look at the labeling system of a very similar concept, organic foods.

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In the United States, organic labeling is under the jurisdiction of the USDA. The specific rules are complex and differ depending on the type of product (e.g. agriculture or livestock), but there are a few general rules. First, food cannot use genetic engineering, sewage, or ionizing radiation. The land used must have a specific boundary and not be treated with synthetic substances for a period of three years prior to certification. And records must be kept and are inspected by a certified authorizing agent. Based on a percentage of how close a product follows these rules, the USDA issues certifications in a few categories: 100% Organic, Organic, Made WIth Organic, and Specific Organic Ingredients. The top two categories, while distinct, are allowed to use an identical USDA seal. The other two categories have to list specific organic ingredients and can identify specific types of organic features, but cannot use the seal. You’ll notice that all of these categories include the word “Organic”, and you’ll have to read the fine print and ingredients list to determine where the product falls on the spectrum. Fraudulent use of organic labeling carries a fine of $11,000 per violation, but as recently as 2010, reports alleged that the USDA was failing to enforce these policies.

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One of the main reasons to eat organic food is to help reduce pesticide use. However, pesticides are still allowed under organic rules. The difference is not in the use of pesticides; the difference is in where the pesticides come from. Synthetically-derived pesticides are largely banned under USDA organic rules, but naturally occurring pesticides are not. These pesticides are not as well regulated or studied as synthetic pesticides, and so health risks are not as well known. And since natural pesticides are typically less effective than synthetic pesticides, farmers use a higher quantity to achieve the same result. Consider the case of Rotenone, a pesticide derived directly from the roots of subtropical plants. Rotenone is naturally occurring and was allowed under organic rules, but has been linked to creating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in lab rats and widely used to kill infestations of unwanted fish. One study of the effects of pesticide pitted Rotenone against a synthetic pesticide, and found that seven applications of Rotenone were necessary to match the effects of two applications of synthetic imidan. Another study found that, not only were organic pesticides less effective, they were more ecologically damaging, eradicating non-target species and plants.

Consider also the case of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxin found in soil bacteria. I’ve written about Bt before, which is capable of killing specific insects upon ingestion. Its effects are limited and precisely targeted to certain insects. Bt is also one of the primary genetic ingredients in modified corn and the cause of much outcry about humans consuming a toxic substance. But Bt is one of the most widely used organic pesticides in the world, and can be used without restriction upon crops that can still certify as organic. Since spraying a pesticide over a field is much less targeted than splicing a few strands of DNA, organic farmers end up using an enormous amount of Bt to equal the effectiveness of what can appear in GM crops.

So if organic labeling doesn’t guarantee reduced pesticide use, and may actually indicate a higher level of less effective pesticides, it must indicate that food is more healthy. Actually, this is not necessarily true either. A 2010 review of studies dating back to 1958 found no difference in nutritional value between organic and non-organic crops, and no indication of a healthier outcome. Another study in 2010 corroborated this report, and considered consumers to be “wasting their money” when buying organic foods for some perceived nutritional value. In fact, a consumer push towards “natural” food can cause more health problems. Recently, misguided consumers have forgotten why pasteurization was invented and determined that raw milk was somehow better than pasteurized. This decision has led to 81 outbreaks of foodborne illness, including 979 reported illnesses and 73 hospitalizations since 2007. From 2010-2012, raw milk was the cause for a full 5% of all foodborne illness in the United States. Not bad for a food that is actually illegal in many states.

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Organic labeling is a confusing and misleading process, with unclear rules and boundaries, and no impact on the use of pesticides or any noted health differences. Why then is organic labeling so prevalent? It could have something to do with increased prices of organic products leading to a $52 billion worldwide market. Considering that enormous number, it’s no surprise that companies have voluntarily jumped on the next food labeling bandwagon, the anti-GMO labels. This has happened with all the commitment and sincerity you’d expect from a multi-national corporation. One of the biggest examples of this is Chipotle. First of all, they have a commercial on the radio that claims that their cheese has “one ingredient: cheese!”, like they went out to the cheese farm and picked a wheel of cheddar off the cheese tree. Cheese is the result of a bacteriological process that affects milk, so there always are at least two ingredients: milk and bacteria. Sorry, it’s weird but it’s delicious.

But more importantly, Chipotle has recently eliminated genetically modified ingredients at all their stores. Except for soda. And meat, which still uses GM crops for feed grain. And they’ve switched from soybean oil, coming from a crop that was genetically modified to be resistant to herbicide, to sunflower oil, coming from a crop that was crossbred through multiple generations to be resistant to herbicide. If you were paying attention to the paragraph about Bt, you’ll notice that the methods of production seem to matter a whole lot in the GMO debate, even when the results are exactly the same. Even though it contains a whopping 1070 calories and 100% of your daily sodium, a Chipotle meal is organic and GMO “free”, assuming you don’t get meat or a soda, and that PR move seems to be paying off for them.

Here’s the deal: you have every right to know what you’re eating, but the issues of organic and genetically modified crops are far too complex to be solved by a simple label. And it’s far too easy for that label to be used as a publicity stunt, with little to no consequence. Regardless of the label, factory farming is pretty much the same across the board, no matter what kind of pesticides they’re using, how much they charge, or what kind of label is on the box. The best thing you can do about it is do some research on the actual science of your food and decide what’s important to you. And then find a local farmer’s market or co-op, buy your meat and produce from local businesses, and cook at home. Skip Chipotle, save money, save calories, and enjoy yourself.

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