On grocery store shelves, coming up with packaging to get people to pick up your product is a big deal. There’s a proposition on the ballot in California that could change packaging requirements for some foods. If Prop. 37 passes, it’ll require labels on some foods made with genetically engineered ingredients — GMOs. Millions have been tossed into the fight over the labeling. We talk with Marketplace’s Adriene Hill about what it means for consumers and businesses.
“If the foods come in a package — like chips — they’d have a line on the back that says, ‘Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering’ or ‘May Be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.’ If it’s a raw food like genetically engineered corn on the cob, it would need to be labeled with ‘Genetically Engineered’ on the front package or label or on the shelf,” says Hill.
How much of the food we eat has genetically engineered ingredients? Estimates are between 40 and 70 percent of the foods sold in California grocery stores. More than 90 percent of the soy and 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. But the proposition does have a number of exclusions: including organics, alcohol, food you buy at restaurants, meat — even if the animal was fed GMOs.
What impact might the label have?
“It’s really hard to say,” says Hill. “These foods have all been signed off on by the government. And the impact of the proposed label probably depends on what kind of shopper you are — how much you care about these things.”
The shopper super concerned about GMOs is probably going to see this label and put the food right back down. But the teenager who just wants a bag of Spicy Nacho Doritos probably isn’t ever going to read the extra line on the back.
As for the consumer who sees the label and doesn’t know what it means, the question is whether or not he or she would view this label as a warning.
“Interestingly, the people who don’t want the label — companies like Monsanto, which makes GMO seed, and big food producers of the world who use a lot of these ingredients — say it’ll scare people off,” says Hill.
Meanwhile, the people who want the label say that it won’t matter all that much. They say it’ll just give more information to consumers looking for it — info like where food comes from.
Jill McCluskey, a professor at Washington State University who studies consumer food preferences, says the labels could have a big impact. “I think consumers will view this as a warning and it’ll hurt sales,”she says. The labels may confuse consumers because the government is allowing this food on the market while also warning you about it.
Julie Caswell, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the economics of food labeling, says the label might cause some head scratching and Googling. “I think for someone who wasn’t aware of GMOs, it would probably raise a question about why is this label here and perhaps they would need to gather some more information about what a GMO is,” says Caswell.
A recent poll by ABC found more than 90 percent of people think genetically modified foods should be labeled. Fifty-seven percent say they’d be less likely to buy foods with that label on it.
So how might all of this affect you? If food producers decide the label looks too scary — that it botches appearances too much — they may try to switch out some of their genetically engineered ingredients for non-GMO or organics which, at least right now, costs a whole lot more. The anti-labeling people say a California grocery bill could go up as much as $350-400.
It’s possible it’ll cost consumers across the U.S., too. For one, California is a big market. Food producers might not want to have separate corn chips for California and the rest of the country. But also, California could be a trend setter on this one — if it establishes mandatory GMO labels, other states could follow.
We’d love to know what you think. To label or not to label GMOs? And if they were labeled, would you be any less likely to buy? Leave a comment and let us know.
If you’re a member of your local public radio station, we thank you — because your support helps those stations keep programs like Marketplace on the air. But for Marketplace to continue to grow, we need additional investment from those who care most about what we do: superfans like you.
Your donation — as little as $5 — helps us create more content that matters to you and your community, and to reach more people where they are – whether that’s radio, podcasts or online.
When you contribute directly to Marketplace, you become a partner in that mission: someone who understands that when we all get smarter, everybody wins.