Farm Industry News Blog

Dealing with food labels

GMO labeling talk will go on - but what are food labels meant to do?

The food label is apparently the silver bullet of the future. It's going to save us from GMOs…really?

So why is a technology editor going off on food labels? Our industry coverage here at Farm Industry News is to look at both the hardware (equipment) and software (seed tech, crop protection) of the industry and GMOs fit right in. And this debate over food labels will impact your farm in one way or another.

We have a lot of information on those food labels now, not sure how "may contain GMO ingredients" is going to help. I read food labels now more than ever - that's what a new cardiac stent will do for you (go technology!) And I want that food label to tell me what's there, period.

Would I care if that label added: "This product contains corn starch derived from a strain of corn that has been modified to protect itself from corn rootworms using Agrisure Duracade? Herculex RW?" I probably wouldn't but you can see how getting truly specific would actually not help anyone.

And what about the safety questions, a blogger on Forbes.com recently noted that major media outlets pretty much said "science has left the building" on the debate. It's an interesting look at how the Vermont GMO labeling law is being covered.

Sure, consumers want to know what's in their food. I get that, I do too. But what is GMO content? If the corn starch comes from GMO corn - and most does - is that a worry? What should the label say: "Made with GMO ingredients." I'm not sure that's helpful.

As someone who follows technology a lot, and has been around biotech since 1990 (I have colleagues who have covered it longer than that) I don't fear it. We've been researching this precision form of plant enhancement for decades and just because something just came to market doesn't mean it popped up like a mushroom on a warm day; this is technology that has been fine-tuned, researched for many years and has proven to do as advertised.

(Note to commenters - and I hope you'll comment - don't mix up a worry about resistant weeds with food labeling. It's frankly not the same issue.)

So back to that food label. I want the label to tell me what's in the food. Not how it was made. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration food label lists what's in there, nothing more. And that's as it should be.

Some might differ with me but let me give you one example. Take soybean oil. Through the crush process, the DNA in that oil is long gone - there's no DNA in soybean oil period, which means there is no GMO content in soybean oil.

However, labeling advocates may support labeling soybean oil as a GMO product because the beans where the oil originated had GMO technology. If you label soybean oil - which has no actual GMO-derived content - because of its association with the source. That's not a food label that makes sense. No actual GMO content, no actual note on the label. Of course, I'm not sure how this labeling issue will finally show up, but you can see how complex it is.

It appears FDA is still balking at the need for a national label, though Congress is moving ahead with an initiative to label foods, in part to stop a potential tide of state-based labels that make interstate commerce a nightmare. But when you apply science (no DNA in soybean oil) it gets murkier, but then again it's not like labeling proponents are using science as their credo.

Vermont's new GMO labeling law will push the issue. Chances are it'll have a run through the courts before implementation. The bill is worth reading if you want to understand the issues brought up in the debate.

Perhaps there is a way to label this content. For the GMO haters it's their way to kill the tech, though in the long run there are a lot of good things that can come from advancements here - golden rice anyone?

Recently the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology released it's look at the GMO labeling issue, and the folks at Feedstuff Foodlink offer an interesting look at the issues raised. A food label should tell me what's in the food. Specificity may help; more likely it's just going to add more confusion at a time when FDA is already talking about big changes to the label.

It is sound science that'll feed 9 billion plus people by 2050, not a food label or a fight against tech that can boost yields and enhance food quality. The debate rages on.

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The Farm Industry News Blog features commentary from Willie Vogt, Jodie Wehrspann, Kathy Huting, Lynn Grooms, Daryl Bridenbaugh and Jeff Ryan.

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