On Point: When science is not enough

tom weirPublic relations concerns may settle the GMO-labeling battle.

Based on the current state of knowledge, there seems to be no scientific justification for requiring that food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) disclose that fact on their labels. The Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and other scientific and regulatory entities say they are safe. If labeling is to be mandated, shouldn’t those who demand it be required to prove that biotech ingredients inject some otherwise avoidable element of risk before producers have to get involved in a costly project with no demonstrable health benefits?
In a perfect world, yes.

However, the lack of a scientific case may eventually be outweighed by the realities of public relations. And when you are selling consumable products to the mass market, PR will almost always trump science.

Momentum for mandatory GMO labeling appears to be building, despite—or perhaps because of—the defeat of a California ballot proposition in November’s elections that would have required producers of foods sold in the state to disclose the presence of GMOs on the packaging. Industry spending to defeat the measure topped $40 million, a fact that incensed proponents and sparked a backlash that included heavy use of social media and boycotts of some participating companies’ products.

Now there are reportedly proposals for some kind of GMO labeling requirement in 20-odd states. Whole Foods has announced that within five years all GMO products sold in its stores will have to be labeled—not a shocking development considering the source, but a high-profile one nonetheless. In January nearly two dozen well-known food manufacturers, as well as Walmart, the organization Just Label It and others met in Washington to discuss the topic.

The more this kind of activity increases, the more public sentiment is likely to solidify in favor of labeling. Surveys have already shown strong support among the citizenry. It is easy for them to be for it; they will not have to do the work to make it happen.

At this point, the issue sounds primarily like a supplier problem, but it is unrealistic to think that retailers’ private label products would not also be affected. Compared to the nightmarish possibility of having to deal with a dozen or more individual state laws, a uniform federal regulation might seem almost painless. Fighting these plans state by state could be a really bad PR move.

Such labeling might be a pain in the neck, but it is not impossible. Some form of it is required in more than 60 countries, so the multinational manufacturers already deal with it. Many have avoided labeling by eliminating GMO ingredients, which would not be as easy in the U.S. as in Europe, where anti-GMO sentiment runs deep.

The best course of action is to lie low, count on the public’s short attention span and hope the momentum fades. If it does not, you do not want to be too late in jumping on the bandwagon, and you do not want to fight back too publicly. If a broad swath of consumers becomes committed to the cause, they are not going to heed scientific arguments or claims about how much food costs will increase. They will just assume you have got something to hide.c

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