Buyer Be Aware: How Much Do You Want To Know About Your Food?

You haven't bought any potato chips that have a Surgeon General's warning on the bag, but someday you may. "Warning: May Contain Ingredients From Crops That Are Genetically Modified" has yet to show up on our food packaging, but there are consumer groups that would like to change that.

Genetically modified ingredients are found in at least half of America's groceries, but there are no federal, state, or local requirement for labeling such ingredients. In the spring of 2000, some 54 nonprofit groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Humane Society of the United States, signed a petition demanding that the government take genetically altered foods off the market until they are tested and labeled.

The issues of what should be labeled is not limited to genetically modified foods: "Eco-labeling" is becoming more common, so you may know that a fish is caught in a "sea-turtle friendly net" or a certain tea is "fairly traded." In Denmark, some supermarkets have a bar code on meat and poultry packages that can be scanned to show pictures of where the animal was raised, what its diet was, when it was slaughtered, and more. There are no such plans for the United States, but some changes are under way; in 2002 a new green-and-white U. S. Department of Agriculture "Organic" label will be introduced, indicating that no synthetic chemicals were used in the growing or processing of the labeled food.

In the United States, there are usually three agencies that oversee and regulate what needs to be labeled in food products: the Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration. Because they regulate different aspects of the agribusinesses, and since some sectors are even self-regulating, a consistent and consumer-friendly policy on what should be labeled has been hard to come by. How much consumers and citizens want to know and need to know about what is in their food is an issue that will only grow in importance.

Critical Thinking Questions
1.Would you favor a bar code system in the United States similar to that used in Denmark, allowing you to find where an animal was raised, what is was fed, and when it was slaughtered? Would you use such a system? What would be the barriers to implementing such a system in the United States?
2.What effect would a label indicating that some of the ingredients in a food were genetically modified have on you as a consumer?
3.Do you think "eco-labeling" is useful in raising a consumer's sense of environmental consciousness?

Eichenwald, Kurt. 2001. "Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle," The New York Times, January 25, pp. C1-6.
Pollan, Michael. 2001. "Produce Politics," The New York Times Magazine, January 14, pp.11-12.