People are cheering, and there are many aspects to be pleased about: the main one, from my view, is that the regulators and food companies are starting to realize that consumers really want to know what they are eating. That said, is industry-led labeling of GMOs good for consumers?
Several aspects concern me. One, the food industry and the regulators (mainly FDA) have a historically cozy relationship. Two, even without a cozy relationship between FDA and business, standards that are developed by the industry are going to favor the industry, even if done in consult with the FDA. Three, what information about GMOs will the label contain?
While labels are simple in concept, in practice they are complex. As an example, the GM labels required by the European Union (under EC regulation 1829/2003) indicate that: (1) food made with GM products must be labeled according; (2) food made with GM technology does not have to be labeled; (3) food made from animals that eat GM products also does not have to be labeled. Freedom of consumer choice is the reason for labeling GM food in the EU.
Would all US consumers agree (and do all EU consumers agree?) upon the set of labeling rules set out by the EC? Consumers are heterogeneous and therefore, labels can’t match the preferences of all consumers. However, if businesses are deciding on the voluntary labels that will be used in the US, how are consumer preferences represented? In this case, how is consumer choice protected?
The business school perspective on industry self-regulation provides a helpful framework for thinking about food industry-led GM labeling, Prof M. Toffel of Harvard Business School, indicates the following are the key factors to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of industry self-regulation: (1) how the rules are designed, (2) who adopts them, (3) how they are enforced, and (4) whether the rules achieve their desired goals.
Second, perhaps the industry anticipates that labeling GMO food is inevitable, and would rather get started now so they control the process? By self-regulating, the industry would decide how Toffel’s items 1-3 are created. From my vantage, this move does protect consumer choice – instead, it appears to protect industry profits.
GM labels are laudable. That said, I am not convinced that we’ll be happy with the type of labeling system the industry and the FDA are likely to develop.