When is the Truth Deceptive Labeling?

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When is the truth misleading? When it's on a food label.

When we see a list of ingredients or a claim on a food label, many of us take it at face value and don't see all the implications of the information. That's risky because, more and more, food labels are being used by sellers to imply that their products are superior to others, often by boasting about what they don't contain even though the absent substance would never be found in such a food anyway. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the content of food labels, doesn't seem to be doing a whole lot about it lately, though they used to.

Several years ago, a food company that produced vegetable oil touted its product as being healthy because it "contained no cholesterol." Well, that was strictly true but somewhat misleading, the FDA said. Why? Because cholesterol is never found in any vegetable oil nor indeed in any vegetable product. Only animals make cholesterol, and only animal-product-based foods can contain it. The FDA ruled that the vegetable oil label implied that other brands of vegetable oil were less healthy, and that label was disallowed. One might have expected the rest of the food industry to take a lesson from this case, but a couple of recent developments suggest otherwise.

First, we have the case of milk.

You can visit any store and find a carton of milk that assures consumers that it contains no hormones, implying no "added hormones" or antibiotics. And that's true, but it's true of all milk. No one adds hormones to milk. The labels are inspired by the trumped-up fear that recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST) is being given to the cows. Anti-biotechnology activists have convinced some people that this poses a human health problem. But the FDA has determined that rBST is not a human health problem and doesn't allow rBST-specific labeling on milk. The FDA should come down on producers who, without specifically mentioning rBST, put "hormone" disinformation on milk cartons. The implication of the labels is clearly that this milk is different in a meaningful way from other milk, and that is not true.

In addition, no milk should contain antibiotics. If a dairy cow has to be treated with antibiotics because of illness, it is illegal to include her milk in any batch that is sold to the public for a specified time after her treatment. Milk is tested regularly to be sure there is no antibiotic residue. Labels that imply otherwise are clearly misleading.

Second, take the case of foods containing products altered by genetic engineering.

A group of organic food producers is now trying to cash in on some consumers' fears about biotechnology by labeling their foods "verified non-GMO," or non-genetically-modified organism. (In Oregon, there's even a move to make such labeling a law.) There are a couple of problems with this label. First, almost all our crops and food animals have had their genetic make-up modified over the centuries by traditional breeding practices, so that label is absolutely untrue. Further, such labels suggest, again, that the labeled food is somehow superior to others because of that specific characteristic again, totally unproven scientifically. Finally, the USDA's new rules about which foods can be labeled "organic" will come into play later this month, and "organic" labels will be forbidden for foods that are gene-spliced (or genetically engineered), irradiated, or treated with a host of synthetic pesticides. So, if consumers buy products that carry the USDA'a "organic" label, they can assume the products have not been subjected to those processes. There's no necessity for further labeling.

The FDA has sent warning letters about this sort of spurious labeling, but they should do more they should enforce truthful labels. Consumers should be able to read food labels and trust that they are both true and not misleading.

Ruth Kava is ACSH's Director of Nutrition.


March 11, 2004

Hi. I just came across your website, and I am very surprised. The writer of "When Is the Truth Deceptive Labeling?" seems to have the wrong idea about why consumers care whether a product says GMO-free, or maybe organic. As a consumer, I am less concerned about whether products that have genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in them are better for my body and more worried about the threat that if our food is all grown having the same genetic material then it is much more subject to disease or plagues.

There is also the problem of farmers as well. Farmers used to be able to save the seeds from their plants and reuse them, or try to breed them for a better product, as the author notes. Farmers, however, lose their ability to do this when seed companies have the exclusive legal rights to a genetic organism. Instead, a farmer can be sued out of control of his entire farm even if his field is contaminated by seeds with a genetic makeup patented by a seed company.

So, yes, perhaps the label GMO-free doesn't mean a food is any better or worse for my body but it may mean that that food is grown in a way that is better for the environment or our society. Product labels are needed not just for knowing what the product will do to you, but in knowing where the product comes from. In such a global economy, the origins of our products seem very distant, but they may have a big impact on our earth and our society.

Katherine Shea

ACSH replies:

Every one of these fears is unfounded. There is no reason to believe g.m. strains will be less resistant to disease on the contrary, g.m. opens up the possibility of creating a wide variety of disease-resistant strains. And no one can force farmers to adopt genetically-modified organisms, so if they choose to make regular purchases of g.m. seeds, it is presumably because they consider themselves better off doing so. They can switch to other strains later if they become dissatisfied. And contrary to your worry that small-time farmers will be the ones sued if their crops are "contaminated" by g.m. seed or pollen, organic farmers are already threatening to sue the makers of g.m. strains if the genetic "purity" of organic crops is imperiled.

They shouldn't fear, though the only "threat" so far posed by g.m. strains is that they may drive away organic consumers. There is, as you suggest, no evidence g.m. products are less healthy for people. And if they aren't less healthy for people and indeed hold the promise of being engineered to offer greater health benefits it's not clear we should regard their presence in the environment as "contamination."

Dr. Kava, the article's author, also points out that the idea that all our food will be "grown having the same genetic material" is unfounded. There exist seed banks that store all varieties of germ plasm and provide a reservoir of diversity for food crops. She also notes that the point of food labels is to give people health-related rather than political information.

Todd Seavey