Food labeling complicated issue that could be costly

Food labeling complicated issue that could be costly

By Lin Warfel

Earlier this year, state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, introduced SB 1666 requiring the labeling of certain genetically engineered (GE) foods. "This legislation isn't about passing a value judgment on GE food," Koehler said. "It's just about giving consumers information so they can make their own choices."

While food labeling seems innocent enough, the issue is far more complicated than it first appears and could impact consumer wallets in a big way.

Testifying against this bill at a Sept. 17 hearing was University of Illinois Professor Stephen Moose, a 14-year professional in the field of maize genomics for the Department of Crop Sciences and program leader for Feedstock Biosciences. Moose has an extensive background in modifying high oil, lysine and enhanced amino acids in corn for better feed and nutrition value.

"I believe it's critical that consumers better understand how a company researches an idea and safely takes it all the way from development to the marketplace," says Moose. He insists that consumers need to understand that the end product they purchase at grocery stores is already highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Mandatory labeling should not be done, says Moose.

The Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) echoes these remarks and instead supports science-based labeling guidelines already in place by the FDA. Associate director of state legislation for IFB, Bill Bodine, says the FDA, EPA and USDA all work in cooperation to ensure that biotech crops are safe for the food supply and our environment.

The most common GE crops in the United States are corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. It's estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores include at least one GE ingredient.

The FDA requires labeling of GE foods if the food has a significantly different nutritional property. That is, if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present such as a peanut protein in a soybean product or if a food contains a toxicant beyond acceptable limits.

As early as 2001, the FDA worked on guidelines for voluntary labeling of food. Suggested wording of "GMO free" was deemed unsatisfactory. "Free" implies zero content which is nearly impossible to verify.

Another suggestion was "not genetically modified." However, "genetically modified" is an inappropriate term because all crop varieties have been modified by plant breeders in some fashion.

"Certified organic crops are already in the marketplace and labeled as organic for consumers who desire an alternative and aren't allowed to contain ingredients from GE crops," says Bodine. "No one state has implemented mandatory labeling of foods. If SB 1666 were to be enacted, food companies would have to segregate food ingredients and products specifically for Illinois."

Colorado State University reports that the cost of labeling involves far more than the paper and ink to print the label. Accurate labeling requires an extensive identity preservation system from farmer to elevator to grain processor to retailer with detailed record keeping along the way. Estimates of the costs of mandatory labeling could actually be as high as 10 percent of a consumer's food bill. Would the consumer be willing to pay for this?

Researchers at Colorado State University conducted surveys regarding consumer attitudes towards GE food with a focus on potatoes. They used 437 supermarket shoppers in four communities and found that 78 percent supported mandatory labeling of GE foods. However, no respondents were willing to pay a premium for a product just because it had a label on it.

"Biotechnology has helped farmers raise more crops with fewer inputs," says Bodine. "This reduces the impact on our environment. Biotechnology has helped farmers expand the use of no-till acres which reduces soil erosion and reduces fuel use because of less trips over the field. Biotechnology protects plants from pests and diseases, allowing farmers to use fewer pesticides."

"Currently, we already have a system in place to catch, track, and pin down any food safety issue that might come up," says Professor Moose. "We truly do have the best food security system in the world. Countries like China and Africa want and are demanding the food we are capable of producing. Considering the fact that we will have 9 billion people in the world to feed by 2050, we need to be ready for that!"

Lin Warfel farms in the Tolono area on a centennial farm begun by his great-grandparents. He has long been active in our community, particularly on issues related to education and agriculture. He is currently the Champaign County Farm Bureau president.

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