Imagine if states forced food companies to give consumers the false impression that their products weren't safe. Unfortunately, you don't have to use your imagination any more, thanks to lawmakers in Vermont. Starting this summer, food companies will be required to label genetically engineered food if they want to sell it in the Green Mountain State.
Proponents of mandatory labeling make this out to be a consumer issue. They are correct, but not in the way they seem to think. Consumers shouldn't be misled by scare tactics and nonexistent science.
Humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of food for thousands of years. Genetic engineering is just one method to achieve this same objective. It allows scientists to introduce desired traits into a crop plant more efficiently and precisely than more primitive methods.
Genetically engineered food has been in the U.S. food supply since the 1990s. It's understandable why some consumers may be concerned about the safety of food developed through such a relatively new and "clinical" process. However, unsubstantiated fears aren't a justification for making critical policy decisions.
If food is genetically engineered, saying so on the label only informs consumers about the process used in developing the food, not the safety or nutritional value of the food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already requires labeling when genetically engineered food differs in any material way from their non-genetically engineered counterparts. As one example, the FDA explains, "if (hypothetically) a vegetable has been bioengineered to contain vitamin B12, the fact that the vegetable contains vitamin B12 and that non-bioengineered versions of that vegetable do not contain vitamin B12 is material. ... [T]he fact that the vegetable contains vitamin B12 would have to be disclosed in the labeling for the vegetable."
Genetically engineered foods on the market today are just as safe as their non-genetically engineered counterparts. Major scientific organizations from the World Health Organization to the National Academy of Sciences agree on this point.
If consumers are still concerned about genetically engineered food, though, the federal government shouldn't prohibit them from getting information that they demand. There's a big difference though between the government prohibiting companies from voluntarily meeting consumer demand for information, and the government forcing companies to disclose information that some consumers desire.
Many companies already disclose whether their food is genetically engineered. Thousands of products on grocery store shelves now bear labels touting the absence of genetically engineered ingredients, giving consumers who wish to avoid such products the choice some say they want.
Proponents of mandatory labeling shouldn't try and use the power of government to require all companies to disclose information that happens to be of interest to them. It isn't the proper role of government to force every company to provide consumers all the unrelated information that some of them may find to be of interest. Further, such a mandatory disclosure could give consumers the impression that the government itself thinks there's something wrong with genetically engineered food.
The tricky issue is whether the federal government should preempt states and block their mandates. This is one of those narrow situations when preemption appears to be appropriate. As states develop these laws, there would be a patchwork of inconsistent state laws harming interstate commerce. States would be compelling misleading speech that is unjustified by the science.
Preemption in this case would promote freedom. Congress wouldn't be seeking to expand government power and restrict freedom. It would actually be ensuring that states seeking to expand government power do not undermine the federal government's existing conclusion that labeling shouldn't be required.
There's one other issue that may be the most critical. States shouldn't harm the development of genetically engineered food, which has been a critical innovation for the food supply, from helping to save the Hawaiian papaya industry to developing more nutritious crops.
As Congress considers how to proceed, it should recognize that taking action promptly is less important than addressing the mandatory labeling issue properly. Solutions that propose alternative labeling requirements, such as through barcodes, entirely miss the point about why mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is particularly problematic: The information contained in the labels would convey the incorrect message that genetically engineered food is unsafe. Prohibiting the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is both the simplest and best solution.
Bakst is the lead research fellow in agricultural policy for the Heritage Foundation's Roe Institute of Economic Policy Studies.