Election 2013
5:01 am
Fri October 25, 2013

I-522: Looking to the European Union for a Real-Life Example

Should consumers have the right to know what’s in the food they eat?

That’s the question at the heart of Initiative 522, which would require labeling of genetically-engineered foods and seed sold in Washington. 

Most people want the choice, but whether the initiative would actually give shoppers useful information is up for debate. One place to look for answers is the European Union, where the world’s first GE labeling requirements took effect nearly two decades ago.                 

On the Store Shelves in the European Union  

At a grocery store in Barcelona, Spain, Victoria Alonso scans the shelves, looking at packages of cereal and crackers. She’s trying to find a label that mentions genetically-modified ingredients. In the snack aisle, she picks up a bag of popcorn and translates the information. 

“It says just corn, fats and...various numbers, but no mention of whether it is genetically-modified or not,” said Alonso.

The ingredients list on the back of this Spanish soy product states clearly, although in small print, that the product contains genetically modified material.
Credit Gerry Hadden

Most of Europe’s genetically-engineered corn is grown in Spain, but she finds none of it in the entire store. She does find one product—a canister of soy lecithin that includes the Spanish words for genetically-modified, “geneticamente modificados”, on its label.

But this obscure item is the only thing she finds that contains GMOs, despite the fact that properly-labeled genetically-engineered foods have been allowed on grocery store shelves in the EU since 1997.

Critic: Label Doesn’t Provide True Choice

The small selection comes as no surprise to Colin Carter, professor of agriculture at UC Davis and an unabashed critic of labeling initiatives like I-522.

“If we judge mandatory labeling schemes based on their stated objectives, they typically fail, including the scheme in Europe,” Carter said.

Carter says the EU is an example of why required GE labeling doesn’t provide true consumer choice. He says companies believe shoppers won’t buy products that say they have genetically-modified ingredients in them, so rather than disclosing, the food producers stop using them.

“As here, the consumers are not necessarily in the drivers’ seat; it’s up to the food manufacturers and the retailers. And they have chosen to pretty much avoid GE ingredients because of the mandatory labeling,” Carter said.

Cost of Change?

As the companies change their recipes and substitute non-GE varieties of key ingredients like sugars and oils, Carter says consumers get fewer choices and face higher prices.

Not so, say supporters of such laws.

“There’s no evidence anywhere in 64 countries that have labeling laws that food prices went up anywhere,” said Trudy Bialic, who helped write I-522. Bialic is also the director of consumer affairs for PCC Natural Markets, a big backer of the measure.

Bialic says labeling won’t play out the same way here as it has in Europe, because even though the EU allows dozens of imported ingredients that are genetically-engineered, Europeans are far more wary of genetically-engineered cultivation. In contrast to the U.S., they grow only one crop, genetically-modified corn.

“The fact that they don’t have very many genetically-engineered foods on their grocery store shelves is primarily because those crops are not allowed to be grown there,” Bialic said. “That’s a big difference. We have many, many crops approved here in the United States.”

U.S.-approved crops include several types of corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola that make their way into about 70 percent of our processed foods. Also approved are papaya, zucchini, and yellow squash found in the produce aisles. 

Meaningful Labeling?

Bialic doesn’t believe that labeling these items would necessarily change consumers’ behavior. She says people in the U.S. often buy things even when they have labels that could mean they’re not good for them. Labeling gives people the choice.

But opponents of I-522 say the labeling scheme here would be less informative than the one used in the EU. I-522 requires labels on the front of packages, unlike European packages that typically disclose it in the ingredients panel, says Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign.

“It actually tells you which ingredients are GE. And on 522, it doesn’t do that; it just puts a warning on the front of the package. And in fact, the warning doesn’t even provide any information, because you know what it says? It says, ‘This food may contain GE in it,”’ she said.

Not only are the proposed labels vague, said Bieber, there are also so many products exempted from I-522’s labeling requirements that it risks scaring people without providing any meaningful information.

The backers of the initiative say the exemptions conform with international and federal standards. They add they can’t put their label with the ingredients and nutrition facts in the U.S. as it is protected by federal law.

Back at the supermarket in Barcelona, Alonso likes the idea of clearer labeling of GE ingredients on the front of the package.

“Normally, the labels are either so small or the warning is so unclear that you don’t see it,” she said. “People don’t know what it is, what it means.”

Alonso thinks Washington’s proposal could serve as a model as the EU revisits its policies.