Truth In Labeling

by: Dean Kleckner, Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology

When a new Swedish beer hit the European market earlier this year, activists from the radical group Greenpeace did their best to make sure nobody would drink it. Like a bunch of mobbed-up racketeers, they pursued delivery trucks around Copenhagen and urged storeowners not to stock Kenth beer, as it’s called. “We stayed up all night printing materials to hand out at the stores and arranging chase cars,” one of them confessed in the Wall Street Journal.

Arranging chase cars? So that’s what it’s come to for Greenpeace: High-speed intimidation to prevent consumers a full range of food choices.

The beer in question is no ordinary pilsner - its biotech beer, in which a portion of the barley is replaced by bt corn grown in Germany. It’s also clearly labeled as such. The EU has just adopted a complicated set of rules demanding special labels on food containing even trace amounts of biotech ingredients. Kenth beer became the first product to carry the label--and its maker is hoping the novelty will translate into sales.

It’s in our interest, of course, for biotech food in Europe to seem ordinary rather than extraordinary – which it’s not. With the EU’s new labeling regime just now going into effect, European consumers finally may have a chance to eat genetically enhanced food the way Americans do everyday. Perhaps when they discover that biotech food doesn’t look or taste any different from other kinds of food, they’ll begin to overcome the irrational fears that mischievous groups such as Greenpeace have instilled in them.

That’s the optimistic view. There are good reasons to hold it. Science and time really are on our side--biotech food is perfectly safe and healthy. Perhaps the finicky Europeans just need a little extra time to get used to that idea. Eventually, their biotech labels will be regarded as innocent pieces of information, like the “Nutrition Data” tables we find on our own food in the United States.

The pessimistic view is that people will see the biotech label and think it’s a biohazard sticker--a dire warning to keep away. If Greenpeace deploys enough chase cars, then it might be possible to think that their thugs will win this battle for public opinion for a little longer.

Yet there’s perhaps a more fundamental question to consider: Just how complicated are these new EU regulations? They’re calling for field-to-fork traceability, i.e., demanding that every piece of biotech food have a detailed provenance. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, because biotech food has nothing to worry about in terms of its safety. In practice, however, this requirement that somebody keep track of virtually ever kernel of corn may prove to be prohibitively expensive.

Just imagine that, following years of protectionist trade policies, we advocates of biotechnology finally pry open the European market only to have it snap shut again. Not because of market forces or sound science but rather, a nonsensical decree invented by prejudiced, “finger in the wind” bureaucrats.

With regulations like these, who needs chase cars? Or protectionism?

We’ll have to give the new EU rules a chance to work and see what happens. Frankly, we don’t have much choice in the matter. These guidelines have been adopted and they currently offer us the best chance we have to make progress among skeptical Europeans. We need to change hearts and minds in London, Paris and Copenhagen.

The very notion of labeling biotech food is profoundly silly. Consider what one European food manufacturer recently said: “Third, fourth, and fifth generation food derived from genetically modified foodstuffs will have to be labeled. A glucose syrup, for example, derived from starch, that in turn hails from a GM maize, will have to be labeled as such.”

Egad – what a labeling mess!

But then again, given Europe’s insistence on labeling, does anybody else have a better idea? If these food labels are the first step toward common-sense and public acceptance, then I’ll live with them.

Our goal is to have Europeans come to the realization that it’s normal and healthy to eat biotech enhanced food. At a certain level, I don’t care if it requires the handholding of special labels, so long as we get there.

And “getting there” is the ultimate test. If these labels give products a fair shake, then Europeans will come to embrace biotech food. They’re sensible people down deep, and they’ll taste the truth--as long as government regulators and chase cars let them.

No comments: