The U.S. economy manages to follow the law and label every electronic gadget and stitch of clothing with where it comes from. Manufacturers likewise have no trouble putting a required nutrition list on food packages. But telling where food originates is called too daunting, and whether it was made by means unknown in nature is judged irrelevant.
The rest of the developed world doesn’t see it so, and apparently isn’t as beholden to agribusiness interests as is our government. Americans deserve better. Congress supported the right of consumers to know where their food comes from and included a country-of-origin label requirement back in the 2002 farm bill.
But the Agriculture Department opposed this, favoring a voluntary program, and its economists warned that implementation would cost $1.9 billion.
University of Florida researchers, on the other hand, estimated the price would be 90% below that claim and cost consumers less than one-tenth of a cent per pound of food.
The government then quietly lowered its estimate by two-thirds. But the political damage was done.
Congress postponed implementation.
Meanwhile, the nation’s four biggest meat packers, which process more than 80% of the beef in this country, are quite happy. Without the label requirement, they can continue to import cheaper foreign beef to leverage down the price of American cattle. This imported beef gets an Agriculture Department inspection label when processed here, and is sold to unsuspecting consumers, who assume it is expensive American beef.
Also keeping consumers in the dark, the Food and Drug Administration refuses to require labels on food whose production involves genetic modification.
In 1994, the agency approved commercial use of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to increase milk production, and said that no label was needed.
Canada looked at the same test data from the manufacturer, Monsanto, and banned the hormone. So did the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other industrialized countries. There is concern that the hormone raises human cancer risk. And because cows on the production stimulant are more prone to udder infection, more antibiotics are used. Overuse of antibiotics undermines our pharmaceutical arsenal by encouraging antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
The Agriculture Department reported in 2002 that two million of America’s 9.2 million dairy cows received the hormone, and that larger dairies use it far more than farms with fewer than 100 cows. Given the industry’s mixing of milk from many farms, most U.S. dairy products have milk from injected cows.
The FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically modified food did not differ from other foods in any meaningful way. But there was considerable debate within the FDA over the differences between foods with and without genetic modification. A lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity prompted the agency to release documents that highlighted the concerns some agency scientists had about biotech foods.
But under this country’s present voluntary system, they remain unlabeled. Polls show that demand for this kind of food is low, and a large majority wants labeling. That could spell market failure, so biotechnology companies and agribusiness giants are opposed.
Without any labeling and separating of genetically modified ingredients, many overseas buyers have rejected corn, soy, canola, and cotton from the United States and Canada. In this country, large natural-food supermarket chains have announced that they will use no genetically modified foods in store brands.
But most processed food in this country contains soy, corn, or both in some form, and 80 percent of soy and 38% of corn commercially grown in the United States is genetically altered.
In a free and open market, transparency is necessary for consumers to know what they are getting. Scientists and nations around the world recognize this. But where and how Americans’ food is raised too often remains hidden. We should enjoy the basic right to know.
PAUL D. JOHNSON, an organic-market gardener and a family-farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas, is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.