A Food by Any Other Label…

So what’s on your plate today?

You think the answer would be so simple when it comes to our most basic foods. But a carrot is not just a carrot these days. Now it is commonplace in any grocery to find a variety of categories and labels applied to them. A food might be “conventional” “local,” or “organic.” It might even be “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” or the enigmatic “all-natural.” The average consumer is bombarded with a variety of marketing labels on foods that need not be “marketed.” While some might find that the labels of these different food types have made their food shopping more confusing, I think that the labels do still have a place. They offer us choices that we might not otherwise know that we have.

For example, when I make a recipe with beef, I choose to look for beef from cows that have been pasture-raised. I recognize that until widespread consumer preferences and current policy changes, the choice to eat beef (or any other animal) raised in a particular way and fed a certain diet is strictly a personal food choice. To me, knowing where my food comes from and what it has eaten along the food chain is important to me. Sadly, I still hear people scoff at the notion that I might seek out “grass-fed” when the beef they eat is “perfectly good.” But strangely I do not hear any scoffs if I voice preference over a certain wine over another. I believe that, like a particular climate and soil affects the grapes for wine, so too do the inputs into the food chain, from pesticides on a plant to the type and quality of grain fed to livestock. If the butcher did not label the food, I would not be able to make an informed choice, nor be able to support a particular product or affect change in food policy.

This brings me to the debate over the labeling of genetically modified foods. Currently, there is no mandatory labeling for these types of foods. True, that by law producers must label all materials in a product, but the gray area begins around the definition of “material.”  The FDA says that “material” means something that can be detected by the senses—taste or smell. So if a genetically modified or engineered food does not differ in sense from a conventional food, it would not merit a mandatory label, or so the argument goes. But genetically modified or engineered products do enter the market without such labels, consumers like me are no longer able to make an informed choice between products.

Opponents to labeling argue that there would be a high cost to consumers for the regulation and verification of products that are non-genetically engineered. It is true that this process would not be easy to implement and would not be cheap. However, we consumers must ask ourselves if the knowledge is worth the extra cost. Most Americans are willing to pay high costs to ensure a good education. It remains to be seen whether we are willing to pay to know what we eat.