Vermont's Bad Food Labels: The Right to Know Nothing

By Josh Bloom — Mar 28, 2016
Thanks to a really idiotic Vermont law, food companies all over the U.S. are scrambling to make thoroughly useless changes to their labels, specifying whether any GM ingredients are in their products. Providing no scientific merit, the law seems to be designed simply to benefit Vermont. Guess who will pay the higher prices for this nonsense?

OlivesCoverDear People of Vermont,

Please be assured that this is not personal.  Although I have never met either of you, I have never heard anyone utter a single bad word about you, so I can only assume that you are fine people.

I am sorry that I cannot say the same about your Genetically Modified labeling law. A number of adjectives can be fairly applied to it, and none are flattering:

  1. Unscientific
  2. Unnecessary
  3. Counterproductive
  4. Costly
  5. Misleading
  6. Disruptive
  7. Stupid
  8. Almost certainly corrupt

It is one of those laws that sounds good on the surface, but anyone with even a fundamental understanding of science will see that it is anything but. The Vermont law accomplishes absolutely nothing beneficial, but what it does do is promote god-awful science, unfounded fears and illogical thought processes.

It has already turned into a major pain in the ass for food companies, which are now scrambling to redo their labels nationally, or simply not sell anything in Vermont. This will serve only to drive up prices, and send more misinformed people to the alluring Whole Foods of the world, where they will pay even more for the same product all the while thinking that they are actually doing something worthwhile.

And, I also believe that the law is corrupt at its core and most of this, if not all, is about money, not molecules.

Aside from that, it's pretty decent.

The latest mantra of narcissistic self-righteousness —"I have the right to know what goes into my body"— is one of the central arguments in the ongoing GM labeling debate, which gets a little less logical by the minute. People want to be able to choose what they are eating, and believe that the placement of a few of words on the label — No GM Ingredients— will enable them to make an educated choice. It will do nothing of the sort.

I have three problems with labeling of products — mandatory or otherwise — that contain ingredients derived from any genetically-modified organisms:

  1. Everything you eat is already genetically modified. It's just a matter of how it was done. By definition, the creation of new breeds means that DNA of the old breeds has to be altered. This modification can be done by selective breeding techniques. Or, by mutagenesis, aka mutational breeding — exposing seeds to sunlight, X-rays, nuclear radiation or powerful chemical mutagens (which are almost certainly carcinogens as well). This technique has been in use for decades.
  2.  The International Atomic Energy Agency keeps a registry that lists plant varieties that "[have been] developed through physical and chemical mutagenesis, or somaclonal variation and activation of endogenous transposable elements." There are 3,233 of these varieties listed.
  3. Much of what people want on the label is not only meaningless but actually misleading.

I maintain that filling labels with useless information not only does not empower consumers; it does just the opposite by confusing them. What information should be included? Does it make sense to have it on the label? Is it helping people makes choices, or is the label just blatant manipulation?

Let's take a look at what is the simplest example of the use of bad information on a label —sugar.

Obviously, sugar comes from sugar cane, but it can also be found in the roots of sugar beets. After a few steps to isolate and purify the stuff, it looks like this:


In case you missed the subtle message of the artwork, they are identical. In every way.

So, do these labels make sense?


No, they don't. Not one bit. The added red text does exactly two things: 1) Takes up space; 2) Suggests that there is a difference between the two, when, in fact, none exists.

Let's take it a step further. The following should be self-explanatory:


As you've probably guessed by now, all three piles are identical. So, do these labels make sense?

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 4.46.05 PM

They sure don't. While there is nothing technically incorrect on either label, there is certainly an implied difference between the two bags of sugar, and it is a fabricated, not real, difference.

Which package will Whole Foods sell? And will it cost more or less than the other? What will the consumer think?

It is all so obvious. Whole Foods will sell a bag of sugar that is identical to the same bag from A & P. Whole Foods will charge more, and many of its customers will exit the store thinking that they have done something beneficial for themselves, their families, or the planet. But they will all be wrong.

So, why put this information on the label? It not only fails to inform consumers of anything, but rather, it is actually misinforming them. That's one bad label.

Yet, this is just the type of conversation that is occuring, both locally and nationally, as individual states, companies, as well as the federal government, struggle to figure out what to do about a bunch of made up nonsense. And, while the discussion goes, "I want the right to determine what to put into my body," I would argue is that what people really want is accurate information that actually tells them something useful and truthful. Then they can decide what to put where, when and why.

As long as this is already ridiculous, why not take it a step further? The following labels might look like the product of a deranged mind (OK, they pretty much are), but when you get right down to it, the only difference between the above labels and the following ones is that I'm hoping that these are at least funny.

Enjoy yourself. Just don't label me.


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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