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Opinion Column
For the week of December 20 through 26, 2000

Label readers are an endangered species

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

- Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Astute consumers of the foods they eat make a practice of reading the labels on the products they are about to buy. This is often the most reliable information available for making an informed decision about whether to buy a product or to pass it by. Not every consumer, however, is discerning, interested or concerned enough to investigate the ingredients that went into the production of their box of cookies, package of frozen chicken enchiladas, can of soup, bag of potato chips, bottle of flavored and sugared water known as a soft drink, or any of the other edible items available in such abundance in the markets of the developed nations. So long as it satisfies their immediate hunger, all too many Americans pay scant attention to what is in the foods they eat.

It is a legal requirement in the United States that labels containing ingredients and nutrition facts are printed on the packaging of many of the foods we buy. This information is mandated by law, not volunteered by food companies eager to educate the public about the mixtures of chemicals and hormones, flavors and preservatives, stabilizers and sugars, fats and acids and sodiums that make up and are added to the foods they sell. The purpose of such labeling is, first of all, to protect the public. Secondly, it is to educate the public and give them freedom of choice concerning their own health. An ignorant public, like an ignorant person, has fewer choices and less freedom than an educated one.

Labeling of foods is not done for the convenience, market share or profit margin of the manufacturer, and it is a very different matter from advertising, which has more to do with persuasion than with edification. Some food manufacturers are able to use labeling in a positive manner, where the ingredients themselves act as advertising, because they want consumers to know what is in the product they sell. Usually these are certified organic foods. The actor Paul Newman’s high profile line of organic foods is, perhaps, the best known example of this in the United States.

Whenever a company is reluctant to disclose a complete list of ingredients on the foods they sell, it should raise the suspicions, interests and attention of the consumer. Monsanto, for instance, is in the midst of a long and intense campaign to keep the information off the labels that a food has been genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are hailed by industry giants like Monsanto as the great solution to the world’s agriculture problems. They claim GMOs are safe and environmentally friendly. Not everyone, however, is convinced that fish genes inserted into tomatoes and strawberries to make them resistant to cold, or genes locked into soy beans and corn to make them herbicide tolerant are safe for either humans or the environment. No matter what the scientists who work for Monsanto say they know of GMOs, they do not know what the long term effects will be of loosing mutant genes into the environment and into the bodies of human beings. If they were confident that genetically modified foods were completely safe for people and the environment, Monsanto would have no reason to oppose honest and complete labeling.

The GMO labeling controversy is a bigger item in Europe than in the United States, and is a subject of heated debates there. Because of those debates, it is likely that genetically modified foods in Europe will be labeled as what they are. The American apathy toward paying attention to the labeling of foods, like the American apathy toward the political process and voting, has consequences. Bill Lambrecht writes that "European consumers like labels and pay close attention to their food source." There are reasons for this. One of them is the gruesome debacle of Mad Cow Disease, which has killed people in Britain and France, and has contributed to a climate of growing public distrust of the food industry in general and food biotechnology in particular. A broader cultural reason is that Europeans tend to view dining as a time to savor and socialize, while North Americans tend to fit in dining around a busy work and family life. Gastronomically, the balance of trade between Europe and American is one of quality and appreciation for speed and efficiency. In Ketchum. we dine at Piccolo, Evergreen Restaurant, Michel’s Christiania or any number of other fine restaurants when we wish to savor the experience of eating. In Paris, we can gobble down bio-engineered French fries and instantly prepared hamburgers between visits to the Louvre and a bit of on-line stock trading.

The American passiveness toward the foods we ingest is both ignorant and dangerous. Consumers who accept the premise that Monsanto knows what is best for them deserve what they get. Consumers who wish to know whether their soy beans are part pesticide and whether their strawberries are a bit fishy, deserve and should demand truthful labeling on all GMO altered foods.

Such demands begin at the local market and work their way up the line to the Food and Drug Administration and, eventually, to Monsanto and the other multinational corporations that control the bulk of the food sources of the world.

Eaters of the world, insist on knowing what you eat.


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