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Thursday April 26, 2018

Why support for GMO labeling doesn't go away

Announcements by Whole Foods that it would require all  suppliers to label any products containing genetically modified organisms by 2018,  similar though less-specific public relations campaigns by Chipotle and Kashi Foods, and last year's high-profile surrender by General Mills to activist demands to take any genetically modified ingredients out of its Cheerios cereal--all have continued to keep the heat on for some kind of legislative or regulatory demand to label foods containing GMOs.

Some polls show as much as 90 percent support for such labeling in this country, and that kind of popularity has culminated in laws--passed but on hold--in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, as well as the highly visible but narrowly defeated California ballot initiative Prop 37 last November and similar laws and ballot initiatives in more than 20 states. 

All the noise continues to fan the flames but add few answers to the perpetual question: Would a labeling mandate help consumers really make more informed food choices, or would it simply cost the food chain more in return for little meaninful improvement?

Count all the costs

Labeling advocates argue the costs to add a GMO label pale in comparison to the normal marketing related labeling changes food companies go through routinely. That kind of oversimplification about the cost of label traits explains why the public sentiment for mandatory labeling is apparently high, says Kansas State ag economist Glenn Tonsor. When government requires labeling, Tonsor argues, consumers see it as costing them little or nothing. He  believes that's what lies behind studies showing 75 percent support for mandatory labeling of bST in milk, 64 percent for GMO feeds and 85 percent for growth promotants in beef production. It's easy to be for labeling when it's free. (And, it's notable to point out research shows that kind of popularity falls significantly when respondents find out costs accompany them.)

Meanwhile, even at those relatively low direct costs, according to other research from the mid 2000s, any estimated benefit consumers gain from mandatory labeling of GMO food is less than the accompanying costs of enforcement and testing, reduced consumer choice for shoppers who prefer to buy lower-priced GMO foods, and loss of international trade. Additional work suggests mandatory labeling regulation likely doesn't even deliver on the all-important "consumer choice:" A mandatory label might lead companies to simply abandon GMO products, switch to non-GMO ingredients and drive up costs, and actually end up reducing choice for consumers who would prefer GMO foods--an argument strongly supported by actual experience in Europe.  When all is balanced, according to the research, the average consumer risks suffering more economically than he gains from mandatory labling policy. 

Still, the great, hotly debated unknown cost is the question of whether forced labeling of GMO products would automatically stigmatize the food as suspicious, leading to large shifts in consumer demand.  Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk reports on a series of studies designed to try to test that question in a recent issue of the journal Food Policy. Does labeling simply appease already existing consumer concerns, he asks, or does it actually become "self-fulfilling prophecy," in which the labeling itself causes concern about the technology?

Lusk's series of studies, one with fresh fruit and another with a processed food, put subjects through a series of choices with differing GMO labels, and then gauged their beliefs about the safety of GMO foods and their  willingness to pay a price premium to avoid GMOs. Although his results failed to show any significant so-called "signaling effect" caused by the GMO labels large enough to detect with his sample size, he nevertheless believes this work doesn't rule out the possibility a negative label effect could still exist. For one, he writes, a real mandatory law imposed by government likely carries a different level of seriousness in the consumer's mind than a simple lab survey conducted by a researcher. It's not possible for the sterile lab environment  to impersonate governmental authority and the media influence that would attend to it.  "It must be acknowledged that ‘real world’ effects are possibly more pronounced," Lusk believes.

But his work uncovered two other reasons he believes GMO labels could still signal danger that would sway consumers.

No. 1: His study found consumers were willing to pay significantly more to avoid foods labeled as "containing GMOs" than they were for foods that were voluntarily labeled as ‘‘does not contain GMOs.’’ He believes those differences imply a difference about the negativity the two labels signal relatively. The difference in wording could change consumers beliefs about the likelihood that an unlabeled product contains GMO or doesn't contain GMO, and their likelihood to trust its safety.

No. 2: Another part of his study found consumers were nearly as averse as they were to GMO food as they were to a ‘‘decoy’’ attribute – using ethylene ripening. Atmospheric ethylene is commonly used to control how quickly fruit ripens in storage--the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. As far as Lusk knows, there's no real controversy over the safety of this natural plant hormone. Yet when asked whether produce ripened with ethylene should carry a required label, consumer willingness to pay to have that label equaled the willingness to pay for GMO labeling. That finding at least implies to Lusk that even an apparently innocuous label could cause danger signaling when put into practice.



The contradiction in Walmart's antibiotics statement

Walmart announced in late May it would now require the farms supplying its animal products to stop using antibiotic medications simply to make animals grow faster and more efficiently. The company said it now believes antibiotics should only be used for medical purposes--specifically, treatment, control and prevention of diseases--and not for "growth promotion."

"We recognize that antibiotics are one of many critical tools used to keep animals healthy and that they should be used responsibly to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine," the retail giant said in a press release.

This latest move by the retailer who reportedly now controls one-fourth of the world's grocery food sales mirrored a March announcement from the White House announcing a new five-point plan aimed at containing and preventing diseases caused by bacteria that have become able to resist the use of antibiotics to kill them. The final outcome of an order signed by the president in September last year, the plan sets an "ambitious" (in the words of Reuters) goal to both fight emerging diseases and to develop new antibiotic treatments.

As expected, the report charged the U.S. Food & Drug Administration with efforts to "further curtail" the use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine for use in helping livestock and poultry grow better and faster.

What's news here?

But as one farm-industry insider noted, FDA has already been doing just what the White House has now ordered it to do and what Walmart so grandiosely demanded of its suppliers. It's been doing it for several years.

The federal plan has already been in operation for three years... In practicality, there is already no longer any such thing as antibiotic 'growth promotion' use.

One of the Obama plan's stated objectives is to "eliminate the use of medically-important antibiotics for growth promotion...and bring other agricultural uses of antibiotics...under veterinary oversight." That plan has already been in operation for three years, under an FDA effort to work with manufacturers of animal antibiotics to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics for that purpose. Every drug company that had an approval on file with FDA has agreed to do so. So antibiotics are already limited to use in U.S. farm animals for preventing and treating diseases only--in practicality, there is no longer any such thing as "growth promotion" use.

Meanwhile, FDA is moving forward with a regulatory structure known as the "veterinary feed directive"--itself now nearly two decades old--to accomplish the second part of that goal. It will require a veterinarian to oversee all use of those in-feed antibiotics important to human medicine, regardless of where the farmer purchases that feed, much as a doctor writes a prescription for a child's medicine which the consumer is then free to fill at your pharmacy.

It should come as no surprise critics of any use of farm antibiotics complained the White House plan didn't go far enough. "President Obama gets an A for tackling this problem from multiple angles. But in terms of addressing the biggest problem, the troubling overuse and misuse of antibiotics on large factory farms, the administration gets an incomplete," a representative of a coalition of public-interest research groups told Reuters.

But the strident language of those critics masks the kid-glove handling given the misuse of human antibiotics by humans, considering its role in the problem. For the three most urgent threats the White House plan identifies--one, a drug-resistant venerial disease and the other two spread among hospital patients by contaminated equipment and unwashed hands--none are related to food or animal use of antibiotics. Yet among the report's soft language about "prevention programs" and "fostering stewardship" by those hospitals and public-health agencies there's no similar language about "eliminating" the use of antibiotics in humans, nor for imposing tighter controls on companies like Walmart who use them as loss leaders.

That stricter regulation is reserved only for farm antibiotics, despite research that continues to demonstrate more than half the antibiotic prescriptions doctors write for childhood ailments are entirely useless against the organism causing the ailment. That means doctors write more than 11 million useless antibiotic prescriptions a year for children alone. The Obama plan is silent on any restrictions to force elimination of those potentially harmful prescriptions.

Distracted by the furor over its recommendations to avoid meat, the traditional food system has missed the deeper underlying threat posed by the anti-freedom tone of the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommendations.

The Washington Post calls for unified food policy. Dietary Guidelines recommendations delivers."Because of unhealthy diets, 100 years of progress in improving public health and extending lifespan has been reversed," wrote a quartet of high-profile food-system activists in a Nov. 7, 2014,Washington Post editorial, titled "How a national food policy could save millions of American lives." New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist Ricardo Salvador and former U.N. human-rights lead Olivier De Schutter wrote in the Post:

"...our fossil-fuel-dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy but energy. And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast-food industries are responsible for much of the rise in income inequality in America.

"...we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.

"That must change."

The four Post editorialists advocate President Obama no longer wait on an obstructionist Congress insistent on treating food issues as "discrete rather than systemic problems," urging he instead move boldly forward via executive order. "...the president won’t be able to achieve his goals for health care, climate change, immigration and economic inequality — the four pillars of his second term — if he doesn’t address the food system," they write.

Prescient, or prelude?

Whether Bittman et al were privy to its release beforehand or simply beneficiaries of good timing, the new 571-page federal report that will craft the federal government's next set of official dietary guidelines released in February could have come straight from the November Post editorial.

Recommendation in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, written by a panel of university nutrition experts recruited by the Obama administration got a lot of press. But most of it centered around the advisors' recommendations for a shift to plant-based diet from the typical American meat-centered diet. "Unfortunately, the statement disregards the positive role of lean meat," said the Denver-based National Cattlemens Beef Association in a prepared statement. "Lean beef is one of the most nutrient rich foods, providing high levels of essential nutrients such as zinc, iron and protein, as opposed to empty calories."


Vegetarianism the least of it

But the vegetarianism in the recommendations is only the tip of the bad-news iceberg grocers may have be bearing down upon. Despite the immediate threat to your meatcase the report brings, the worse implicaton of the report is that for the first time, federal dietary guidelines may be formed not just on nutritional implications, but on the environmental and social considerations outlined by the activists in their November editorial. The stated goal of the committee could have been lifted from those pages. It's goal? To:

"Align nutritional and agricultural policies with Dietary Guidelines recommendations and make broad policy changes to transform the food system so as to promote population health, including the use of economic and taxing policies to encourage the production and consumption of healthy foods and to reduce unhealthy foods."

That attempt to “transform the food system” has taken the panel far outside its area of expertise, critics say. The panel's language, although obviously carefully crafted to appear benevolent, hides the strong hand of government dictate beneath, in speaking of its strategy to:

"Incentivize the development of policies and initiatives at local, state, and Federal levels that are carried out using cross-sectorial collaborations to promote individual healthy lifestyle behavior changes and create community 'cultures of health.' These may include improvements in built and physical environments to create safe and accessible resources and settings for increased physical activity and more widely available healthy food choices. They may entail changes in policies, standards, and practices in retail, and public and private settings and programs that promote 'cultures of health' and facilitate the initiation and maintenance of healthy lifestyle behaviors at individual and community levels.

"These actions will require a paradigm shift to an environment in which population health is a national priority and where individuals and organizations, private business, and communities work together to achieve a population-wide 'culture of health...'”

In such a re-thought culture of health, the panelists say, "...the resources and services needed to achieve and maintain health would become a realized human right across all population strata...." It also calls for increased local, state and federal policies to limit access to foods the report deems unacceptable in public facilities, and to set nutrition standards for food offered in public places.

"Efforts are needed by the food industry and food retail (food stores and restaurants) sectors to market and promote healthy foods," the report ominously advocates.


Implementation of the proposed dietary guidelines would have profound impacts on the retail grocer. The government is accepting written public comments here until midnight May 8. Take advantage of the chance to make the grocer's viewpoint known, and then post your comments to the comment section below so other grocers may adapt your points to their own comment submission. Let's make the grocer's voice heard while we have the chance!


Why Californias voted against their own pocketbooks

In the 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas, liberal political pundit Thomas Frank mocked the propensity of mostly blue-collar Kansans to consistently vote politically against their own vested economic interests. Now, Oklahoma Ag Economist Jayson Lusk has surveyed shoppers to point out a similar contradiction for California egg consumers.

Lusk asked a sample of consumers, “In 2008, 63 percent of voters in California voted to ban the use of small cages for egg-laying hens. However, at the time around 90 percent to 95 percent of the eggs Californians purchased came from small cages, and only 5 percent to 10 percent were cage free. So, a majority of voters voted to ban a product that a majority of shoppers routinely bought. Why do you think there is such a gap between how people voted and how they shopped for different types of eggs?”
Here's how Lusk categorized the open-ended responses he received:

  • 46 percent said they didn't know, mentioned a food safety or health issue that didn't precisely translate into explaining the vote-vs.-buy gap, or gave some other nonsensical answer.
  • 27 percent said they thought people simply didn't know they were buying eggs from hens kept in smaller cages.
  • 14 percent said people will buy the cheapest food available, regardless of how they vote.
  • 8 percent said people split themselves into two personas that behave differently: the public citizen who wants to "do the right thing" and does so when voting, and the smart shopper, who buys according to price and value.
  • 5 percent said consumers couldn't choose to buy the "more ethical" choice because it wasn't widely available before regulation forced its appearance.
  • 4 percent said people don't care enough to shop their conscience, but they might be convinced to vote for it if confronted by a ballot measure.
  • 2 percent said a relative minority was able to enact a ban even though a majority of shoppers buy caged-hen eggs, because the minority is more passionate and drives its members to vote at a disproportionately higher rate.
  • 2 percent said shoppers may want to buy more "welfare-friendly" eggs, but they need the presence of regulation to nudge them into paying the higher price.
  • Nobody mentioned two of the academic economist's pet theories: That people rationalize that their individual purchase won't make an impact but their vote might, and the "commitment hypothesis," that people really want to buy cage-free eggs but they continually backslide without a regulatory ban in place.





The trade group for the meatpacking industry has given up its lawsuit seeking to halt USDA's Country of Origin Labeling as a violation of the businesses’ free speech rights.

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