To Label or Not to Label?
That's the question resource economist Mario Teisl's been asking
about genetically engineered food
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"It is well known that the flow of information between consumers and
producers plays a critical role in the efficient operation of
markets. Simply stated, labeling policies can make markets work
better. Consumers are more informed about the exact attributes of
products, and firms producing goods with desirable attributes are
rewarded with sales." — Mario Teisl
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In recent years, food labels have
become a battleground for consumer groups, the food industry and
Advocates promote mandatory labeling of all products that contain
genetically modified ingredients (foods whose genetic makeup has been
changed to offer agronomic or nutritional benefits). In opposition,
companies and industry associations argue that the cost and complexity
of such labeling outweigh the benefits.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have gone on record as
opposing mandatory labeling of GM foods. However, a bill introduced in
the United States House of Representatives, first in 1999 and again in
2002, would require the labels on any foods containing genetically
The issue has been debated by the Maine State Legislature. This fall,
Oregon may be the first state to vote on a GM labeling law after Oregon
Concerned Citizens for Safe Food got the issue on the November ballot.
Many of America's trading partners, especially the European Union and
Japan, already require such labels, and recent polls indicate that a
majority of U.S. consumers want GM foods labeled.
That's why Teisl, an associate professor in The University of Maine's
Department of Resource Economics and Policy, is asking consumers their
opinions on how GM labeling should be done. His survey is part of a
nationwide labeling study, supported by a $180,000 grant from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA).
If legislation mandates such labeling in the U.S., Teisl's analysis of
consumer attitudes will provide a basis for developing standards for
label content, size and appearance.
What's at stake is consumers' trust in the food they buy. The sticker
shock also could translate into millions of dollars in labeling and food
handling costs to industry, and a potential shift in purchasing habits.
"Knowledge of consumer attitudes helps to determine what and how
information is presented on the label. To be helpful to consumers, label
information must be simple to use and be seen as credible," says Teisl,
whose research focuses on measuring the effects of health and
environmental information on consumer markets, and on designing
effective environmental information policies.
Teisl and his colleagues began their project in 2001 by meeting with six
groups of people (a total of 56 adults) in Orono, Maine; Columbus, Ohio;
and Phoenix, Ariz. This fall, the researchers will expand the project by
mailing questionnaires to 7,000 people, including 1,000 Maine residents.
In his USDA research, Teisl is collaborating with UMaine faculty members
Mike Vayda in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular
Biology, and Kelly O'Brien in Resource Economics and Policy, as well as
Nancy Ross of Unity College, and Brian Roe of Ohio State University.
The University's Maine Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station is
publishing the results of the meetings in the three states.
From those meetings, it was found that some participants opposed any
genetic modification of food ingredients, and others were surprised that
such ingredients are already common in processed foods.
Participants were generally uncomfortable with the idea of genetic
manipulation of food products, and they desired more information on
labels and through educational efforts. They also noted that details on
labels need to be clear and certified by either the federal government
or a trusted third-party organization.
Many participants said that labels should not say that the food product
"may contain genetically modified ingredients." That simple phrase, they
noted, was too ambiguous.
They also discussed the "GMO Free" labels already appearing voluntarily
on some products. The new labels are designed to indicate that the food
does not contain GM ingredients. Most survey participants did not know
what "GMO Free" means; others viewed it simply as a marketing tool. As a
result, they have been simply ignoring the labels.
The debate surrounding GM food labeling centers on two issues, Teisl
says. First, what are the benefits of labeling GM foods (and which
consumers are benefiting)? Second, what are the costs of providing those
Benefits of labels can be measured by their ability to inform consumers
about a product's positive and negative attributes. When such
information is well understood and credible, consumers' purchases match
However, it's been estimated that a labeling program could increase food
prices by about 5 percent, Teisl says.
"In addition, some people believe that international support for GM food
labeling is driven not by consumer protection concerns but by a desire
to protect domestic farmers," says Teisl. "Given most GM foods are
produced by U.S. farmers, mandatory labeling effectively provides a
barrier to U.S. agricultural trade.
"The on-going struggle between proponents and opponents of GM labeling,
both within countries and at the international level, makes the analysis
of the benefits and costs of these programs particularly important."
In many ways, labeling programs and policies have helped to develop or
improve the workings of a diverse set of markets, says Teisl, who also
has studied labels for forest products and power supply promotions.
"Nutrition labeling of food is an obvious recent example, but examples
abound: safety labeling of bicycle helmets, dolphin-safe labeling of
tuna, safe-use labeling for household pesticides and cleaners, unit
pricing of foods, fuel efficiency labeling of cars and trucks. U.S.
markets would be quite different without the use of labeling."
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.