Dumbing Down the Food Supply

My wife has been interested in purchasing a tumbler-style composter. In August I was in Lowe’s and spotted one for $99. Was this an exceptional value, or was this a case of “you’ll get what you pay for”? Knowing that Lowe’s online site allows customers to rate products, I decided that more information was in order. As it turned out, the composter was universally panned at Lowe’s site for having too many parts and being difficult to put together. We decided not to purchase the product.

Was there any need for regulatory agency to warn me that possible frustration was ahead? In this case, information was the best regulator. Yet, those who are very handy and who value money over time might go ahead and purchase the composter. Others, like me, will look elsewhere. By providing information, Lowe’s may forgo some sales; but in exchange, their transparency is a foundation for trust and they build relationships with their customers.

Given this little example about the value of information, it might be surprising to learn that many federal regulatory agencies impede the flow of information to consumers even though their stated aim is to protect consumers. Please take a few moments to answer whether the following statements are “true” or “false.”

  1. Your favorite breakfast cereal or cookie may be manufactured with Chinese ingredients, but the package need not disclose the country of origin.
  2. Your favorite breakfast cereal or cookie may contain genetically modified ingredients, but the package need not disclose that fact.
  3. If your favorite breakfast cereal or cookie contains irradiated ingredients, the package must disclose this information.
  4. Dairy products that contain rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), which is a genetically engineered variant of the natural growth hormone produced by cows, must be labeled as such.

The answer to number 1 is true.  In general, food products from foreign countries have to be labeled with their country of origin. Thus, olive oil from Italy is marked as a product of Italy. There is a BIG exception to the labeling requirement for imported foods when those ingredients undergo “substantial transformation.” Makers of a cookie baked in the United States with ingredients imported from China do not have to disclose on the label the country of origin of those ingredients.

I used China as an example not to bash China, but because many consumers are concerned about the quality and safety of Chinese ingredients.

The answer to number 2 is true. Not only is the listing of genetically modified ingredients not required, but the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has been taking steps to prohibit food manufacturers from disclosing that their products contain genetically modified ingredients. Recently the FDA “told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.”

The point is not whether genetically modified ingredients are safe or not safe. Each individual consumer should be free to determine what their food preferences are. Europe and Japan require labeling of genetically modified ingredients. As a consequence, very few products containing genetically modified ingredients are sold in these countries.

The answer to number three is false. Individual foods that have been irradiated must be labeled as having been irradiated. However, if such foods are used to manufacture another product, the end product will not be labeled to inform the consumer. So, the spices in a cookie may be irradiated; but that information does not have to be disclosed on the cookie package. Several times in the past, the FDA has proposed removing the labeling requirements for irradiated individual foods; it has backed away from that position after consumer protests.

The answer to number four is false. For now, manufacturers that label their products as rBGH free must also disclaim “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH supplemented and non-rBGH supplemented cows.” I write “for now” because promoters of rBGH have been trying to ban the labeling of dairy products as rBGH free.

In 2003, Monsanto the maker of rBGH actually sued a small dairy in Maine for labeling their products:  “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.”

“No significant differences” in products from rGBH treated cows is hardly accurate. Many believe that “rBGH milk is contaminated by pus, due to the mastitis commonly induced by rBGH, and antibiotics used to treat the mastitis. rBGH milk is supercharged with high levels of a natural growth factor (IGF-1), which is readily absorbed through the gut. Excess levels of IGF-1 have been incriminated as a cause of breast, colon, and prostate cancers.”

Whether those beliefs, my beliefs, or your beliefs about rBGH are true or false is hardly the point. Labeling information allows individual consumers to make their own determination based on their values and their tastes. Spokespeople such as David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, argue consumers are better off without information. Recently Edwards proclaimed, “Extra labeling only confuses the consumer. It differentiates products that are not different. As we stick more labels on products that don’t really tell us anything more, it makes it harder for consumers to make their choices.”

Using Edwards’s twisted logic, one could argue that the ingredients in food should not be labeled at all; they could argue that only aggregate information such as calories be provided. A future industry spokesperson may argue that one calorie is the same as any other calorie; it doesn’t matter whether your lunch burger calories came from a vegetable or a cow.

Recently the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has joined the FDA’s crusade to prevent consumers from having more information to make choices. The FTC has sued the makers of POM Wonderful (pomegranate juice) for providing information that studies show “the drink leads to a ‘30% decrease in arterial plaque’ and ‘17% improved blood flow.’” Are the studies fraudulent? No, the FTC doesn’t claim that. But the FTC’s position is that the FDA must evaluate the studies first. In other words, for foods to claim health benefits, foods must be treated as drugs and go through the same studies that drugs goes through. In the world of the FDA and FTC, only drugs have health benefits.

Who is the FDA and FTC protecting? They are protecting large manufacturers—manufacturers who reduce costs by using lower costs ingredients than their competitors.

To return to my composter example, a composter that is inexpensive but requires many hours to assemble has its place on the market. For those who are hungry or for those who don’t believe there is a connection between food and health, cheap low-quality food has a rightful place in the market. However, it is clear that in the case of food, some manufacturers are using the regulatory arm of government to protect themselves from having to compete against higher quality products.

Often those who oppose food with genetically modified ingredients look to government as their savior, but they find themselves in a spitting match with proponents of genetically modified ingredients. This is a battle that the proponents are glad to engage as regulatory agencies look out for their interests. The experience of consumers in Europe and Japan teaches a lesson: Proponents of genetically modified ingredients cannot win the battle when consumers have information. Consumers vote with their food dollars. If food packages are properly labeled, consumers vote against foods with genetically modified ingredients; eventually products that consumers view is inferior are driven out of the marketplace.

Concerned about the obesity problem in the United States? There’s no magic solution, but simple solutions like proper labeling on food will help. Imagine sodas having to label their products as “contains high-fructose syrup from genetically modified corn.” Or, imagine the cookie aisle in the supermarket filled with labels such as “contains Chinese whey from rBGH treated cows.” Do you think that might impact sales?

As educational reformer John Taylor Gatto has pointed out, government has dumbed down our schools.  For many years, government has been equally intent on dumbing down our food supply with equally tragic results.

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