NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Mandatory Biotech Food Labeling Unnecessary

May 1, 2001

Proposed rules and guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would allow voluntary labeling of food products derived from genetically modified crops. But the European Union and some U.S. activists are demanding the U.S. adopt mandatory labeling requirements. As Henry Miller, the former director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, reminds us, when mandatory rules were implemented in the United Kingdom, many food products disappeared from grocers' shelves.

Mandatory labeling would create a number of problems, says Miller. For one, the term "natural" has not been clearly defined. Also, labeling would imply incorrectly that buyers need to be warned of unspecified dangers. And it would inflate costs, and reduce distributors' profits as well as consumers' choices.

  • Miller says there is a broad scientific consensus that modern techniques of genetic engineering are essentially a refinement of the kinds of genetic modification that have long been used to enhance plants, microorganisms and animals for food.
  • Because of the precision and predictability of the technology, the products of gene-splicing are even more predictable than -- and as safe as -- the genetically improved foods that have long enriched our diets, such as seedless grapes, sweet corn and high-yield grains.
  • With the exception of wild berries, virtually all fruits, vegetables and grains have been genetically improved by one technique or another and thus are no longer "natural."

If enough people really want to avoid gene-spliced food, says Miller, niche markets will arise, as they have for kosher and organic products -- assuming that consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods certified to be "gene-splicing free."

Source: Henry I. Miller, "Biotech Food Labeling Is Regulatory Overkill," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 27, 2000; Raymond Formanek Jr., "Proposed Rules Issued for Bioengineered Foods," FDA Consumer, March-April 2001, Food and Drug Administration.

For FDA Consumer text


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