The fast-approaching July 1, 2016, deadline for Vermont’s new labeling law – and a new federal proposal that would set a national system for disclosure – for genetically modified (GM) food has provoked a range of responses from food manufacturers while reigniting debate about the need to balance the weight of scientific evidence against consumer demand for transparency. At the center of the debate lay questions of trust in science and how the ways we communicate risk serve to increase or decrease that trust.
On the industry side, in January, Campbell declared support for mandatory labeling for products containing GM ingredients, and in March, General Mills announced its own intent to voluntarily label GM food products. Other big players, such as chocolatier Mars, have made similar announcements. With Vermont’s labeling law looming, General Mills and others have appeared to focus their efforts on arguing for a nationwide approach to GM food labeling.
Perhaps not coincidentally, General Mills’ announcement came only days after the failed efforts by the U.S. House and some members of the U.S. Senate to ban states from requiring mandatory GM food labeling. Specifically, the House bill would have prohibited states from requiring GM food labeling on the basis that informing them is not “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading.” The Senate bill sought to establish voluntary labeling standards for GM foods, an effort that ultimately expired due to lack of needed support.
As the debate over GM food labeling continues to rage, it’s worth looking at the reasons consumers support or oppose labeling. A body of communication research, including a recent study we co-authored, suggests that consumers' views on GM foods reflect their values and how information about labeling is communicated to them more than the actual science.
Shouldn’t latest science settle it?
The fault lines over GM food labeling at this point are well-established.
On the one hand, labeling proponents argue that consumers have the right to know what is in the food they purchase so as to avoid possible health risks associated with GM ingredients. Others argue that labeling gives consumers the ability to avoid GM ingredients as a larger ideological statement about agro-food industry.
More generally, one could say that resistance to labeling flies against consumer demand in an age when experts admonish us to read nutrition labels to watch our sugar intake and avoid certain types of fats. Also, not telling people makes it look like there is something that the food manufacturers are hiding, which can damage the trust consumers place in them.