By Matt Reese
I came home a little later than usual from the office and dinner was almost ready. As I walked in the door, I heard my wife say to the children, “Are you guys ready for some French fries?”
My taste buds were then on high alert. While she doesn’t make them often, Kristin will occasionally cut up potatoes, glaze them with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake them — one of my favorite treats.
It smelled great. I reached into the refrigerator to grab some ketchup. I set the condiment on the counter in anticipation of the French fries and my wife gave me a funny look.
“Ok kids, eat your French fries,” she said as she handed the kids their plates.
My two-year-old son shares my enthusiasm for French fries and wore a huge smile, ready to tear into the delicious potatoes. It was at this point that I noticed the “French fries” looked kind of funny.
“Why did you get out the ketchup?” Kristin asked.
“Uh, for the French fries.”
“Oh, they’re not really French fries,” she said in a hushed voice. “They’re Brussels sprouts, I just made them the same way I make French fries. I think they taste pretty similar.”
I was skeptical. I looked over at my son and my suspicions were confirmed. Upon shoveling
copious amounts of the misnamed side dish into his mouth, his big smile had twisted into a look of utter disgust and distain. Within seconds he was extracting the chewed up “French fries” onto his plate. His love of delicious homemade French fries may forever be sullied by that horrendous Brussels sprout masquerade.
I ate them, but could not hide my disappointment as I choked down the sprouts. I even added some ketchup to cover up their Brussels sproutiness, with very little success. Though my wife’s intentions may have been good, that was a trick in mislabeling that I will not soon forget. Everyone has a right to know what is in their food.
This basic premise is at the center of the current debate in California after enough signatures were gathered for a November ballot measure on the labeling of foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Proponents feel that, if genetically modified crops are in the food, it should be on the ingredient label, just like salt or sugar.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has contended in the past that labels are not necessary because the food is no different if GM ingredients are used. Consumers have food safety concerns about GM crops and feel that it is their right to know what is in their food. A pro-labeling campaign slogan, “This is a simple proposition for California in 2012” makes it sound like an easy decision for voters. And maybe it will be.
The people of California want clarity, simplicity and clear information concerning GM crops in their food — a simple label. But is it really so clear and simple?
Due to the immense amount of effort that would be required to successfully trace every corn or soybean based product included in most processed foods, it is likely that the vast majority of processed products in the grocery store will be labeled with the option in the proposal that is: “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” Does this really provide any additional information to the consumer?
Even more challenging and costly would be the foods that are NOT labeled because they are GM-
free. For example, Bluegrass Farms in Fayette County has an impressive and successful history of exporting non-GM food grade soybeans to Asian markets. The small identity preserved grain company is doing big things by focusing on the details that large commodity handlers do not have time to mess with. The specialty food-grade, non-GM soybeans handled by Bluegrass Farms are grown by area contract growers who are required to take all of the necessary precautions to deliver unfettered loads. Bluegrass Farms inspects the soybeans for purity and works with an independent third party inspection agency to verify that the reality of the soybeans accurately represents the non-GM label.
With this in mind when considering the California GM labeling debate, this kind of monitoring and additional handling makes the price tag much higher for those products that are GM-free. And, keep in mind, this type of monitoring would be required for every corn- or soybean-based ingredient (high fructose corn syrup, soy flour, whatever…) in a processed food item. This is not an easy or cheap proposition.
I think many labeling advocates are hoping that the mere mention of “genetically modified” on a food product will inspire mass panic and encourage consumers to seek out and buy GM-free products. Maybe some shoppers will do just that, until they see the added costs that will have to be built in for not just the label, but the cost of maintaining GM-free purity from farm to grocery, which is no easy process.
To make the idea of GM labeling even less useful, there is already a perfectly fine GM-labeling system in place — organic. According to the rules that are already in place for products that are already being inspected and already being labeled, organic foods cannot be GM or contain GM ingredients.
Ultimately, though, the customer is right, right? Shoppers do have a legitimate, and reasonable expectation to be informed about the contents of their food. Does it matter whether the factors considered in a consumer’s purchase decisions are accurate or not? If shoppers do not want GM products for whatever reason, and are really willing to pay the extra associated costs, maybe agriculture should be better prepared to provide them.
It is possible that GM labeling could increase awareness of modern food technology, create increased demand for identity preserved crops (and the associated premiums) and encourage more open dialogue between agriculture and consumers.
The solutions here are not as simple as the pro-labeling campaign would have you believe, but California voters will be providing some answers this November. The big money pro-labeling campaign is already anticipating a bigger money anti-labeling campaign in what will certainly be an interesting battle to observe. Ultimately, I think, agriculture will have to respond to consumer concerns about labeling, whether it is voluntary or mandated by voters. Because, in the end, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you bite into what you think is a French fry, only to find yourself chewing on a Brussels sprout.