Manufacturers assert that they have no obligation to provide consumers with notice through labeling when ingredients created through innovative technologies are introduced into consumer products designed for human consumption. On the other hand, consumers take the position that they have the right to know what ingredients are in these products, especially when ingredients are novel and the risks associated with exposure to them are unknown. Recent events suggest that this problem may be developing a life cycle that savvy manufacturers should be watching. The first in what may be a series of examples of this life cycle is the conflict over the labeling of genetically modified plant ingredients in food.
From the outset, food manufacturers using GMO ingredients have declined to provide consumers notice of GMO content. The FDA has not mandated disclosure as it takes the position that the introduction of GMO ingredients into food is not material. This lack of transparency resulted in consumer rights groups testing products for GMO use and disclosing that use to consumers. As consumers have become aware of the extensive use of GMOs in their food, a rising number have expressed the desire that these ingredients be labeled. A recent ABC poll suggests that 93% of consumers now support mandatory disclosure of GMO content on labels.
When industry ignored this consumer preference, a market was created for products that are “GMO-free.” Thus, the practice of “GMO-free” labeling was born. The growing consumer labeling movement also triggered repeated attempts to pass labeling laws. While these efforts have been unsuccessful to date, they are gaining traction – for instance, it cost industry 40 million dollars to block California’s prop 37 calling for mandatory labeling last fall. With more legislative proposals cropping up (a ballot initiative in Washington State and legislative proposals in Connecticut, Vermont, New Mexico and Missouri), a growing consumer boycott of some organic or “natural” brands owned by major food companies and a recently introduced popular mobile app by Fooducate that allows consumers to check for GMO content in a growing number of products, industry may be seeing the writing on the wall. Just this year, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has decided to remove GMO ingredients from its supply chain. And the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussion of major issues, convened a meeting in Washington last month that included executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling. See here. Many are predicting that voluntary labeling may be right around the corner.
It appears that this life cycle of manufacturers’ refusal to disclose innovative ingredients with unknown risks and consumers’ reactive self-help measures may be repeating itself in the context of the use of nanotechnology in consumer products.