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GMO Foods Should be Labeled, But Not for Safety: Bioethicist

Should labels be required for all food that contains genetically modified ingredients? Yes. But not for the reason you think.
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Should labels be required for all food that contains genetically modified ingredients? Absolutely yes. But, not for the reason that is dividing Americans over GMOs.

The New York Times reports that the giants of the food industry are deeply split over the labeling issue. Monsanto and other companies involved in selling genetically modified seeds have a bunch of academics on their payroll who say that GMO food is safe and there is therefore no need to label. Organic and natural food companies like Stonyfield Farm and Earth’s Best counter with their own paid experts who say the case for GMO safety is far from proven and labels make sense.

Both sides are watching their wallets.

Companies selling GMOs don't want their products labeled for fear of stigmatizing their products and losing customers. Organic food companies want labeling to provoke safety concerns that drive consumers toward their ‘natural’ products.

WATCH: Should Foods Be Labeled As GMO?

The fight over labeling is not confined to those who are selling GMO or non-GMO products. Vermont passed a law last year requiring labeling of genetically modified food. Maine and Connecticut have label laws too. The U.S. Congress will soon vote on a bill that would block individual states or cities from requiring GMO labeling. This is the same Congress that yells incessantly about state’s rights, but loses interest in them when the issue is corporate aversion to labeling.

The case for labeling is tied up with arguments about safety. Safety concerns would trigger Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements. But, ironically, that is entirely the wrong issue when it comes to labels. The reason GMO food should be voluntarily labeled by the food industry is that it is clear some consumers want to know what they are eating and they have a right to know what is in their food.

Seeing the pro-GMO food industry fight labeling on the grounds that GMO food is safe is pathetic.

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Think about the words that go onto food products now that have nothing to do with safety, or for that matter any proven facts about nutrition: 'Baked fresh'; 'real cream cheese icing'; 'immune support'; 'whole grain'; 'lower fat'; 'source of important nutrients'; 'all natural ingredients'; 'great source of protein'; 'made with real fruit'; 'rich in omega-3s'; not to mention ‘made in Italy, Poland, Vermont, Maine, Australia’ — and my favorite, ‘made with love’.

Arguing against including GMO labeling when this is the kind of stuff the industry embraces is a bit like arguing that Donald Trump’s hairdo should not be made fun of because it is entirely his own hair.

The USDA organic label means no GMOs.
The USDA organic label means no GMOs.USDA

The opponents of labeling need to end their opposition to letting people know what they want to know about their food. If the industry really believes that GMO food is fine — and I am in that camp — then slap a smiley-faced DNA helix on the package and promote the hell out of the fact that high-tech GMO is in most of your breakfast cereals, soups, cooking oil, milk and frozen food.

It is — it has been for well over a decade — and those who eat it don't have a third eye. So, whether eating GMO food is, or is not, a big worry for you, demand a label right next to the announcement that elves made your cookies.

Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. Follow him at