Don't Just Label It - Understand It

Love you Bernie, I really do. In fact, I actually made my own "Vote Sanders" sign for my front lawn during the primary. Maybe it worked, my county voted for Bernie Sanders. Still, I cringe on a daily basis as Facebook friends and YouTube commenters remind me that some of the Vermont Senator's views are a tad less than perfectly scientific. So it bothered me a bit when I read a recent post by Senator Sanders on Facebook where he said, 

"GMO labeling is not a radical idea. 82% of the American people agree and it's already done in 64 other countries around the world. All we are saying is that people want to know what is in the food they eat." - Senator Bernie Sanders, (D) VT from his Senatorial Facebook page

No, I'm not going to cover well trodden ground to defend GMOs here. Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Kevin Folta, and Norman Borlaug have done far better jobs than I ever could. Even an old Penn & Teller show has covered it. If you really want an easily understandable, well reasoned, and scientifically informed explanation, check out Myles Power. He has several excellent videos. I won't try to do better than an actual scientist. I want instead to talk about a question I often find myself trying to answer. One that Myles and company have mostly left unanswered. One that may not be best answered by a scientist. I want to address just one question people have asked over and over, and has not been answered by many people on either side of the debate. I want to address Bernie's question.

Why not just label?  

Here's the thing, I used to think everyone understood certain things about how our food is produced, processed, stored, and transported. I realize now that I was assuming facts not in evidence. I throw myself on the mercy of the court and plead too many years of reading OMNI Magazine instead of socializing. I just didn't realize most people view the above question as reasonable, rather than quaintly naive. You may have, like Bernie Sanders, wondered about this. I think there are three good reasons many reasonable people, not just big business, don't want mandatory labeling laws similar to the one his state has enacted.  

1. Package and Sales Considerations

A label is actually pretty cheap. You can buy a bit of gummy paper, or print one off on the computer, or just change your printer settings, right? Well, no. First, an official label isn't just any old bit of sticky paper. The Vermont plan allows a good deal more leniency than some others, but usually labels are of a designated size, color, font, style and design. Take the label for USDA approved raw meat. It looks like this.

USDA Inspection sticker example

USDA Inspection sticker example

Or actually, that's one way it could look. It's going to depend on lots of things. Raw meat actually has to be stamped with an inspection stamp on the carcass, and be labeled on any packaging. If it is "processed" in any way, it gets another inspection sticker. Cooked, gets another. And it gets marked for grade. Plus it has to have handling instructions printed on the package.

Examples of USDA labels for grade of raw meat

Examples of USDA labels for grade of raw meat

I stole this example from

I stole this example from

These are mandatory labels required by the USDA. There are others that are strictly voluntary, like the one for humanely treated poultry or the one for kosher foods. Well, actually, there are lots of them for kosher foods. Some voluntary labels are overseen by USDA. These are the USDA certified programs like Certified Organic or GMO Free. Even though it is entirely up to the seller/maker/packager whether to put a voluntary label on their product, if they want to include it, they have to meet program guidelines. That's why many companies with products that might actually be organic or GMO free may not label that way. It's just a lot of hoop jumping. If they don't see it as benefitting them to include the label, then they often won't. For instance, if you don't think anyone wants kosher ketchup, then you probably won't waste time and money putting it on your label. But if you've gone to the trouble of paying the certifier and meeting all the requirements, putting it on the label usually will make you a bit of extra money, in this case because Jewish people that observe kosher will buy yours over a brand that doesn't have certification. Thus, markets drive who puts voluntary labels on their products. It's already getting more complicated, isn't it? Will you make more money selling free range eggs than the cost of actually raising chickens in a way that meets USDA requirements? Will your customers be willing to pay extra for whatever advantage the label confers?

Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. - glossary of terms used in labeling poultry USDA
Free Range chickens and kids at the Alabama Pioneer Museum

Free Range chickens and kids at the Alabama Pioneer Museum

Any label that USDA oversees, whether voluntary or mandatory, has to be approved by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services. And that's not as easy as it seems. Lots of new ones are created all the time, but lots more don't get approved because the rules are so difficult to follow. It's a burdensome process. Once the label gets approved, it doesn't get changed. You can't create your own meat inspection sticker, for example. You can change some aspects, but others are hard and fast. You can't make it too big, too small, the wrong colors, or of the wrong font. You can't change their circles to squares. In some cases you can't even pick your own kind of sticker or stamp, but have to use the very specific style they require. If the approved stamp is of edible ink, it must be in edible ink. If it is approved only for indelible ink, you can't substitute a temporary ink. They aren't kidding. Why? Because this is regulatory. It has the force of law behind it. If you want your program's certification managed by the USDA (or FDA or EPA) then you have to accept that means they will have to make regulations that can be applied across the board to everyone and be enforced.

Jody Scheckter beer from BBC News

Jody Scheckter beer from BBC News

If your product is super small, adding an inch wide label may completely obscure your product or its label. If you spent a few thousand dollars having your packaging designed by a professional agency, changing it to accommodate a label you might not need could be costly, both in terms of paying additional fees and in terms of its ability to sell your product in a sea of similar products. And if your labels are usually printed of a material, in a color, or with ink that doesn't qualify, you may have to change your entire label, not just add a tiny design element. People who invest in a label for their product do not want to spend still more money redesigning them. Even if that design is of questionable value to begin with, eh, Jody Scheckter?


But aside from the issues of the physical label, is the question of what the label is telling us. What are you conveying when you say your product is cruelty free or fair trade? These are pretty positive messages, I think most of us would agree. If I don't care about whether my chocolate is fair trade, then I'll ignore this label and select whatever candy or baking chocolate that appeals to me. But if this is an issue I think is important, I may seek out those with this label. 

What does GMO Free mean to you? What message does it convey? GMO Free,  is a phrase that producers can put on their food if they want to appeal to consumers who consider this an important issue. The USDA allows this wording, but doesn't recommend it. Their preferred verbiage is:

  • "Not bioengineered.”
  • “Not genetically engineered.”
  • “Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology.”

There's also a non-governmental organization called the Non-GMO project that provides certification that food producers can apply for the same purpose. This is a USDA approved label, but it is overseen by a non-governmental agency. What message do you get when you see this label on your food?

If you're like most people, you are going to make certain associations. It's green, which signals healthy, natural things. Two of these even have plants and one has a butterfly on it. But even more important is the word free. Usually when we advertise that our food is free of something, we mean it doesn't have something that might be bad for us, or a contaminant. Good things that are absent from our food are usually cautions or warnings, like "Notice, this food contains less than the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A." But things that we say our food is free of are things we want them to be free of. Free has a very happy connotation, doesn't it? Fat free, cholesterol free, sugar free, contaminant free, pesticide free, gluten free or GMO free certainly appeal to people who don't want those things. And they don't send a negative message to people who aren't concerned about GMOs, gluten, sugar, or fat. So these labels work the way they intend to. They might also work the way the aren't supposed to, by scaring people about things that actually aren't worrisome. My mom's a diabetic, so she occasionally needs to purchase sugar free versions of her favorite foods. I watch my weight, and may do likewise. But someone who is avoiding sugar only because of a vague notion that sugar is bad, isn't making an informed choice so much as acting on emotional triggers. Worse, if you buy sugar free thinking it means lower calories, you may be exchanging calories from sugar with calories from fat, and not benefitting at all. Similarly many people have become convinced that gluten is something that should be avoided for general health, even though only a small percentage of people actually have celiac disease, the condition that makes gluten dangerous. Some people also have wheat allergies, and gluten free foods may be one way to avoid wheat. But they aren't celiac sufferers and don't need gluten free products, so much as wheat free. That label, for them, can be misleading. Gluten is in some grains other than wheat, and wheat proteins can contaminate foods that are certified gluten free.

Products that are labeled the same tend to get shelved together at grocery stores. Does your store have a Health Foods section? How about a Snack Food section? Foreign Foods is a section most commissaries have, and I've noticed it in a few grocery stores over the years too. Some stores go further and have sections for gluten free foods or sugar free or diabetic foods. A GMO Free label would likely be treated the same. That can either give GMO Free foods an added boost, or work against them by placing them in a sort of in store ghetto where shoppers never go unless they are specifically looking for that label. Deciding whether your product should be separated that way is an important marketing decision, and not one that may be in your hands in every case. If keeping your product out of the icky foods aisle means not labeling, many companies might decide no label is the way to go. And this is the positive label, remember. We haven't even mentioned the more ominous, "May contain GMOs" or "Made with Genetically Engineered Ingredients" type labels.

2. Misleading and unscientific Labels don't inform the consumer.

How does that apply to GMOs? Oh boy. So let's look at that label again, GMO FREE. So as I said, the FDA doesn't actually like this wording, even though it's allowed. There are some good reasons why it's not the preferred way to say it. It just doesn't mean anything. It's not precise, and it's a tad misleading. GMO stands for genetically modified organism.



an individual animal, plant, or single-celled life form.
synonyms: living thing, being, creature, animal, plant, life form
"fish and other organisms"
the material structure of an individual life form.
"the heart's contribution to the maintenance of the human organism"
a whole with interdependent parts, likened to a living being.
"the upper strata of the American social organism"
synonyms: structure, system, organization, entity
"a complex political organism"

Need I point out that a tomato is not an organism? The tomato plant is an organism. The tomato is a part of that organism, in the same way you are an organism, but your fingernail is not.

A tomato is not an organism

A tomato is not an organism

The FDA also lists the following phrases as acceptable.

  • “We do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology.”
  • “This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered.”
  • “Our corn growers do not plant bioengineered seeds.”

These phrases make it clear that what is genetically altered is the plant, not the resulting product and that we aren't just talking about modifying them, but engineering them in vitro.

A tomato plant is an organism

A tomato plant is an organism

The FDA is actually pretty clear about the in vitro part. They differentiate GM from non-GM for regulatory purposes by the fact that some actual lab equipment was necessary to the process.

If we use the term GMO, we are actually referring to any organism modified at the genetic level. So traditional cross pollination, chemical alterations of seeds, or bombarding them with radiation would all qualify. But none of these methods are included under the rubric GMO as Senator Sanders and others intend. Oil made from GE soybeans is correct usage. GMO soybean oil, isn't. It's that simple. A soybean is not an organism, and oil is most definitely not an organism.

Even if we pretend that the term GMO actually properly applies to food made with GM organisms, rather than only to the organisms themselves, we still have the problem of the perception of the label. Saying that some food is GMO Free is implying that GMOs are something we would rather not have in our food. And while others have made a better argument than I could hope to about whether GMOs are a good or bad thing, the assumption that GMOs are something we'd rather not have in our food, is definitively wrong. Why? Because GMOs cannot be in your food. They are the food. Just like a an identical twin is a clone, a clone is not in an identical twin. If the tomato plant is the organism, you can't put it in the tomato, now can you? If anything, we should say GMOs have been reduced so as to make your food. We've cut the tomato from the vine, sliced it up, cooked it, and added salt, spices, and vinegar to make your sauce. You're welcome. 

So how should we feel about this phrasing required under Vermont law?

  • Produced with genetic engineering
  • Partially produced with genetic engineering

I don't find them particularly alarming, but then again, I know what a GMO is and isn't, and I like GMOs in a general sort of way. These phrases at least don't claim that you are eating the entire tomato plant, root and stem. You aren't eating an organism, just something made with the help of technology that modifies organisms. For me, the problem is that they tell me nothing of any real use beyond that. Yes, they were made with genetic engineering. Which sort? Wait, you didn't know there were different sorts? Oh yeah, I looked it up. My Google Scholar Fu is strong. Here are some of the processes which are lumped under the general heading of genetic engineering.

  • Microbial Vectors a naturally occurring genetic engineering agent such as Agrobacterium transfers DNA into plant cells
  • Microprojectile Bombardment naked DNA is delivered to plant cells by “shooting” them with microscopic pellets to which DNA had been adhered.
  • Electroporation plant protoplasts take up macromolecules from their surrounding fluid, facilitated by an electrical impulse.
  •  Microinjection DNA injected directly into anchored cells. Some proportion of these cells survive and integrate the injected DNA. 
  • Transposons/Transposable Elements genes of most plant and some animal species have short, naturally occurring pieces of DNA with the ability to move from one location to another in the genome. Haven't yet been used for commercial applications.
  • Transduction bacteriophage is used to move DNA from one strain into another

So which one was used to create the stuff you're eating? Most likely microbial vectors, but microprojectile bombardment is especially helpful with cereal grains like corn according to these guys, who should know better than I. Transduction relies on bacteria. So medicine and cheese rely more on that method.

What was the purpose of adding the new DNA segment (or suppressing it, or duplicating, or deleting... whatever)? A lot of attention is focused on making them resistant to pests or the stuff that kills those pests. I can almost kind of see why people might fear ingesting a plant that is designed to resist bugs. Still, this seems to be a very selective sort of turn off, only applicable to GE varieties. Not many humans eat sorghum in the US, but the horses don't seem to mind eating completely non-GMO greenbug-resistant hybrids. The weed (Arabidopsis thaliana) which is a kind of mustard, can attract friendly bugs to eat the bad plant-killer bugs thanks to a gene from a strawberry plant. So there's an interesting GE test case. I can see where people wouldn't want to eat a naturally bug resistant plant, even if it is just a wild mustard crossed with a strawberry plant. 

But what if the trait it was providing was the production of less of a chemical that causes cancer and turns your potato black? Wouldn't that be something people want to eat, no matter where the chromosomes for that trait came from? And wouldn't they especially want to eat it once they learn the chromosomes came from another potato?

I know, Flint Lockwood. Keep that thing back. It can call bug bodyguards. -Still from Cloudy With Meatballs 2, strawberry fruitimal named Barry

I know, Flint Lockwood. Keep that thing back. It can call bug bodyguards. -Still from Cloudy With Meatballs 2, strawberry fruitimal named Barry

Bottom line then, genetic engineering is the manipulation, in some way, of DNA. One might suppress parts, delete parts, add parts, duplicate existing parts, or combine parts. One might add DNA from within the same species. This is how Arctic Apples were made, for instance. Different apples had different favored traits. Combining them brought a nonbrowning apple that tastes great. It's hard to see how an Arctic Apple is somehow more threatening than any other hybrid apple. Two apples are mated to produce a new one with DNA from both parent apple trees. Big whoop, as my kid would say. Or they might take DNA from other similar species, the way the AquaAdvantage Salmon was created using rDNA from a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout. Of course they can use vastly different species too, as when a goat is modified to produce medicine for humans.

The DNA is what makes it a GMO, right? 

So what about products derived from GMOs that contain no DNA, or none of the DNA that was modified, or only a tiny amount of fragmentary DNA? Soy is a common GMO. Nearly all the soy in the USA is from GM stock. Soybeans contain GE DNA. And tofu from those soybeans also contain GE DNA. It's one way countries that ban GMOs can test to determine if you've cheated and sent them some of that nasty modified stuff. But soy lecithin contains only trace amounts of fragmentary DNA. Still GMO? Ok, what about rapeseed oil? The rapeseed is GE. But the oil contains not even trace amounts of DNA. How would you even know if the rapeseed oil you are using came from GMOs? Oh, the label you say. A label that tells you nothing useful. It didn't tell us what method they used, or what traits they were selecting for, or whether the traits came from the same species or another one. Wow, that was helpful-not.

3. The real costs are hidden

If you can slap a new label on without too much cost, and you don't care that the new label is nothing but a panacea for people who don't understand science, then you really have no reason to object to labeling, right?

Well, this is a law, remember? It has the force of law behind it. Let's take a look at what it says.

“Commingle” means permitting physical contact between unpackaged food produced without genetic engineering and unpackaged food produced with genetic engineering during production, processing, transportation, storage or handling, other than during the manufacture of a multi-ingredient product containing both types of food. Unpackaged food in a closed container identifying it as produced without genetic engineering is not commingled while the container is intact. -CP 121.01 Definitions
Commingling of food leads to shortages of Hershey bars and peanut butter.

Commingling of food leads to shortages of Hershey bars and peanut butter.

The following foods shall not be subject to the labeling requirements of section 3043 of this title: .... (2) A raw agricultural commodity or processed food derived from it that has been grown, raised, or produced without the knowing or intentional use of food or seed produced with genetic engineering. Food will be deemed to be as described in this subdivision only if the person otherwise responsible for complying with the requirements of subsection 3043(a) of this title with respect to a raw agricultural commodity or processed food obtains, from whomever sold the raw agricultural commodity or processed food to that person, a sworn statement that the raw agricultural commodity or processed food has not been knowingly or intentionally produced with genetic engineering and has been segregated from and has not been knowingly or intentionally commingled with food that may have been produced with genetic engineering at any time.  -CP 121.03 Exemptions and Exceptions (b) (i) 2, emphasis added

So you just start to get an inkling of the additional costs that are going to be carried with trying to comply with this law. Apparently, Sen. Sanders et. al. believe that allowing a GMO salmon steak to sit next to a non-GMO trout will lead to GMO DNA leaping off the salmon, impregnating the trout, and reproducing little filets. Possibly, instead they view GMOs like diseases, where one can contaminate the other, passing on the disease like unvaccinated children in Disneyland passing along the measles.

Let's say you are a cookie and energy bar seller on the internet, with your own webpage and a location in Texas. You don't mill your own flour, and you certainly do not grow your own wheat, corn, et cetera. So you are trying to comply with the law. You contact the wholesaler that sells you your corn flour. "Is your flour GMO free under VT law definition?"

Our wholesaler is in New Jersey. They don't know, so they call the mill that bulk processes it for them. "Is the flour youz guys send us GMO free or what?"

The mill says they are pretty sure it is, but they receive grain shipments from all over the US, Canada, and Mexico. They send an email to the three co-ops who ship corn to their mill. "To: all corn suppliers, cc: all shippers, B&R Railroad, Sante Fe Railroad, Jim Someguy, That dude that loads the trucks, and my lawyer, we are receiving requests for compliance certificates from Vermont food suppliers in re the GMO law. Please send certifications of GMO Free status ASAP this office. If not certified, please see attached copy of law for guidance in drafting sworn statement of same. No more corn will be accepted this mill until we are in full compliance." He gets back certificates or sworn statements from about half the people who ship him corn for milling. He contacts you and tells you he just can't guarantee that all the corn that is processed at his mill is 100% GMO Free because some trucks and railcars are used to haul both GM corn, and non GM corn, and they aren't always thoroughly washed and inspected between shipments. Technically, they can't say they have definitely segregated and avoided commingling along the entire supply chain. Sorry. Good luck in the cookie business. Now what do you do? You have three options.


Bad, Worse, and "That's the way the cookie crumbles."

I was writing a cookbook when I made this.

I was writing a cookbook when I made this.

  1. Bad - You label your product  “may be produced with genetic engineering” per the law. You have no choice. You can't prove that it isn't. But it isn't! It really, really isn't. Your wholesaler and his mill and their supplying farmers all tried their best. But complying with this law is a real bear. Now consumers will not be buying your GMO Free cookies anymore. You can still sell to all the people who don't care if they may be made with genetic engineering. It could be worse. 
  2. Worse - You label them GMO Free and take your chances. Someone reads your website and sees that you buy from Happy-Go-Lucky-Natural-Corn Wholesale Company. Wait a minute, they remember someone suing the Happy-Go-Lucky for their happy-go-lucky ways with organic certification. Realizing this means your cornmeal and sorghum energy bars are made with their flour, these nosey people turn you in. You either hire a lawyer and hope they are really good. Or you pay the fine of "not more than $1,000 per day per product." You have 6 SKUs, that's up to $6,000 per day. Either way, your all natural cookie and energy bar business is going belly up. Nice knowing you.
  3. Crumbles - You could decide not to label, say to heck with Vermont, and pull your product from their stores. You won't be alone. Large and small manufacturers and suppliers have done just that recently. Coca-cola just announced they will not be shipping some of their products into the state, at least for the time being. Coke can afford that decision. Hope you don't make a lot of your money off your Vermont buyers. C'est la vie!

If you choose option one, Vermont has another kick in the profits for you. They've gone ahead and superseded Federal Regulations once more. 

The manufacturer of a food that is produced entirely or partially with genetic engineering and offered for retail sale in Vermont shall not make any statement about the food that contains the word natural or any words of similar import: (1) in advertising at or in the retail premises, (2) on signs identifying the product at the point of display in the retail premises, or (3) on the label of the food. This prohibition does not apply to a food’s trade, brand, or product name, or any information required by the United States Food and Drug Administration, as referenced in 21 C.F.R. § 101.2(b). - CP 121.02 Labeling (c) (i)
Probably not GMO. Definitely Delicious.

Probably not GMO. Definitely Delicious.

What does natural mean? If you haven't read my earlier blog post about my own efforts to pin down the definition, you can click over there now. The FDA has pretty much given up on defining it. How much do you want to bet that at least some of those companies opting not to label have something about natural or nature on their packaging? I need to pay the phone bill, so I'm taking all bets. Yet Vermont, all by themselves, decided that the FDA was wrong. I agree, but in the opposite direction. Look, if GMOs are unnatural, so is cooking oil regardless of its origin. Certainly potato chips in a bag have got to be artificial by any definition. I'm not going through this again. It will make your head hurt. People who define natural as, "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." have it as much right as the FDA or anyone else. You might as well tell them they aren't allowed to put "Made with love" on the label. It has exactly that much meaning. But here it is in a law as if Bernie Sanders or anyone else has actually ever defined what natural means. They've exempted one, and only one, food breeding method from being labeled natural. You can label a three tiered cake, foam, or cotton candy natural. You can grow your food in a hydroponic vertical garden on your roof, and that qualifies as natural. You can submerge your seeds in chemicals and select the mutations you like, and that can be labeled, all natural. You can pickle it in brine and bury it in your backyard for ten years, and that's natural. But a muffin made with sugar beet derived sugar using granny's recipe and packed in a recycled brown paper bag dyed with edible plant dyes, is unnatural. Yeah, that makes sense, Bernie. So not only do these sellers have to label their food as containing genetically engineered stuff, even when that doesn't make sense, but they also can't use feel good marketing fluff words like all natural because you want to reserve those for everything else under the sun. That's a hidden cost they just aren't copping to.

If we're going to label, let's not do it one stupid state at a time.

Look guys, this is America in 2016. We don't buy only food produced the next town over. We buy food that not only is made or packaged the next state over, but which contains ingredients from all over the country, or even all over the world. Cacao from Africa or South America, blended with sugars from Louisiana, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, vanilla from Mexico, hazelnuts from wherever hazelnuts grow, and soy lecithin from almost anywhere become the candy sold by the British company licensing the Swedish name and selling through the US chain store. Welcome to the future of food. Do you know where the corn that was used in your frosted flakes came from? Odds are, neither does Kellogg's. Kellogg's has stated they will label their products. But they're doing it on a national basis, and they are urging a single federal standard. I think that makes sense. It's hard enough to get Mexico and the US on the same page. Getting all 50 states plus our territories and protectorates to agree on labeling rules is a Herculean task. That's why we have an FDA, USDA, and EPA. They decide what standards the whole country will follow. Vermont seems to think it's 1681, before the triangle trade route opened up interstate and international shipping and before Congress saw the need to establish the Interstate Commerce Clause specifically to prevent this kind of confusing nonsense. The current law that just went into effect is hurting consumers in many of the ways skeptics like me warned it would. So, even if you don't care about science, or a fair shot for small businesses, or even Constitutional law, maybe you'll care that you can't buy your favorite Coke product, or infant formula, or snack food. If these reasons weren't compelling enough, maybe we can talk about those pesky COOL labels next time, eh?

This is part one of a two part article on GMO labeling and laws. The next part will cover the new compromise legislation just approved by Congress. 

This post is now available in a video format!