Is There Anything That Should Not Be on Food Labels?

If you thought the fight over mandatory GMO labeling began and ended with 2012's Prop 37 battle, well, first of all, you need to visit this website more often. Secondly, perhaps it's time to get yourself ready for another nasty battle. The introduction of SB 1381, a bill attempting to make GMO labeling mandatory in the state, is allowing us to relive the whole thing all over again.

While the bill is still winding its way through the legislation -- it still has quite a ways to go before becoming law -- there's a sense that this is all a formality. That whether or not this specific bill goes through, mandatory GMO labeling is coming. Which means it's time to start the discussion of what should actually be on the label.

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The argument over the label's contents really boils down to an argument over whether or not all GMOs are created equal. That is to say, whether or not all foods created through the manipulation of genetics are as potentially harmful as others. ("Potentially" being the key word in that sentence, as there's still unanswered questions about how harmful GMOs are, questions that get even murkier when you consider that current testing methods may not actually be worthwhile.) GMOs can technically be created in a number of ways, not all of which are necessarily bad.

Skeptoid has a smartly-written primer regarding two types of GM processes, cisgenesis and transgenesis. Transgenesis is the method that we generally associate with GMOs, the messing around with DNA through the introduction of outside DNA in order to create an entirely new species. When we talk about "Frankenfoods," this is what we mean. Cisgenesis, on the other hand, is:

[T]he transfer of genes from related organisms that the original might otherwise be able to crossbreed with. The point to cisgenesis is to more efficiently isolate and transfer genes, short-cutting the traditional method of crossbreeding and conferring the desired trait without carrying over unexpected, undesirable traits. They are, in effect, just efficiently crossbred varieties.

In other words, cisgenesis is the shortening of the natural process. Both processes technically result in GMOs, and therefore would fall under the same label. As would certain GMOs that have been developed for "good reasons," such as oranges resistant to diseases or grains void of allergens. The question, then, is should they all be considered GMOs in a one size fits all labeling system?

The L.A. Times says no. They're scared this approach will lead to frightened grocery shoppers ridding all GMOs from their cart, thusly putting an end to the financial incentive to develop new "good" food technology, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Their solution, then, is to put a halt to the fight over labeling, explaining that:

There's a limit to what manufacturers can tell consumers about their food.

No, there doesn't have to be.

Perhaps what needs to be reconsidered is the concept of what a "label" is. We live in an era where it's easier than ever to access a massive amount of information. There's no reason that shouldn't include our food labeling system.

Open up any magazine or look at any advertisement and you'll see a weird squiggly square of blocky barcode. That's a QR code, and it allows programmers to input a massive amount of information in that small area. (An area, it should be noted, that's just about the size of a food label.) One of the many pieces of information that can be embedded in a QR code: A link to a website. And one of the many bits of info that can be included on a website: Everything you want to know about your food.

The proposal, then, is to include a label informing consumers that the food contains GMOs. But then also have the label include a small QR code that can be scanned by any smart phone -- or, for those without smart phones, an in-store scanner like barcode scanners at big box stores -- and tell consumers everything they want to know about the product. Then, they'll be able to use that information to make their purchasing decision.

Will it be used? Well, there's still an argument over whether or not regular food labels are currently used enough. That doesn't mean consumers shouldn't have access to the information.

The technology is here, it just needs to be utilized properly. There's no reason a GMO label should be put on hold due to worries over space limitations. There are no space limitations anymore. Stop thinking inside the box.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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