Tuesday, August 6, 2013


The U.S. debate on genetically modified (GM) foods is continuing. Much of the current discussion focuses on GM labeling of the food on our store shelves . Do consumers want it? Yes, the large majority do. In fact, U.S. consumers have been agitating for it for years. But if we do get it, would we actually read those labels?

Way back in 2008 (which now seems like the dark ages of GM foods), a poll by the New York Times found that 87% of consumers wanted such labels. Another poll in 2010 found that 93% of U.S. consumers were for it. Still another, in 2011, found 96% of consumers favored it. And yes, every poll since - to my knowledge - has come out with the same answer. Consumers want such foods labeled because the majority of us - especially women, older people - and Democrats - believe they are unsafe to eat. We want them, because then we could avoid such foods.

I agree. Consumers deserve the right to know what they are buying and eating. If they feel strongly about GM foods, they deserve the right to know which ones they should avoid, for themselves and for their children. That's what The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food is all about - showing you how you can choose safer food if you want to.

But there's theory, and then there's practice. Even if we had such labels on our food, would most of us read - and trust - them - even if they were in fine print, hidden somewhere in the fold of the package?

The truth is that a large percentage of people never read food labels - how large, I don't know. Estimates vary, and the statistics are not all that reliable. Studies have shown that people tend to overstate their label reading.

And, let's face it: it's not really a yes/no issue. Many consumers who do read the food labels, often just look at calorie content in relation to serving size and maybe sugar, fat or fiber, or, check the "Best By" date for freshness. They don't read the fine print, or read the health claims. How many don't? Maybe half.

Among those who do read labels, a large proportion do not understand them or find them confusing (much the same thing).

In addition, many consumers simply don't trust the labels, even if they do glance at them: they think that labels are a kind of advertising rather than a disclosure of facts.

So, if the U.S. decides to follow several other nations and really require GM labeling on food, who would consistently read them? Would you? And what would happen if we found out that the vast majority of food on our store shelves - including most of our favorites - exceeded the 0.9% (or, whatever) established GM material threshold?

To your good health,


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