At a biotechnology communication conference I was recently at, one gentleman raised his hand and said, “Current labeling initiatives are trying to use 19th century technology to label 20th century technology in the 21st century.” Take a second to think about that.
Based on a recent piece by The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, the United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has had this same train of thought:
The way to go, long-term, is to embrace a 21st-century answer to this problem… — an extended bar code or some mechanism [through which] consumers who are interested in all the information about a product could obtain it fairly easily, either through their smartphone or through a scanner that would be available in grocery stores.
The F.D.A. and U.S.D.A. could help coordinate the compilation of information. That way you wouldn’t create a misimpression about the safety of a product, which could happen depend on how something was labeled.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I had the opportunity to study the agricultural and food system in India for a few weeks in early 2013. One of the most fascinating food industry visits we took was to “Freshtrop Fruits Limited,” a high-end fruit processing and packaging facility in Nashik, Maharashtra. As I wrote in a previous post from that experience:
I have spent much time studying the sincere lack of transparency in America’s food system, and was quite taken aback by the extreme measures FreshTrop takes to provide information to their consumers. Grapes are harvested during the mornings of the hot season, brought to FreshTrop directly from the producer, and stacked in different sections throughout the processing plant. Complete traceability is maintained throughout the supply chain.
100% traceability — back to the individual farmer’s plot, and the dates of harvest and applications of agricultural inputs — is maintained with a barcode on the package. An online traceability system is also accessible by customers. In case of a threat to food safety, information regarding origin of food must be available to consumers within 72 hours in India; Tandon and his company are proactive, with such information available to customers before they even purchase the product.
Much innovation and entrepreneurship has gone into this quality grape product; a high demand is available in Europe’s markets, with consumers willing to pay a higher price for a better product.
Though it is important to remember that this intricate system for transparency is for a high-quality, niche market product, I cannot get my brain beyond the fact that this is being used/working in INDIA of all places. It is also important to consider how complex our nation’s food supply/system is, and how difficult it would be to have transparency that parallels FreshTrop; however, perhaps, as Nathanael Johnson notes, this could be an appropriate step towards transparency over genetically engineered ingredients:
One problem with GMO labeling is that this could turn people into single-issue buyers. Okay, it’s GMO free, but does that matter more than the fact that the workers who made it were exploited, or that the farm is losing tons of topsoil a year? And Vilsack’s solution really solves that problem, because all sorts of data points could be embedded in a barcode.
Critics of Vilsack’s suggestion, such as risk communication scholar David Ropeik, doubt that this labeling approach would satisfied critics of agricultural biotechnology—for many ultimately are not only looking for labels, but a demise of the technology itself. I think it would be fascinating, however, to further pull apart this idea of bar code labeling. How expensive would it really be? What impacts would it have politically? How would consumers react?
One of my biggest concerns in arbitrarily labeling products that may contain genetically engineered ingredients is that the food industry would inadvertently and unintentionally create unnecessary fear over the food available in grocery stores. I cannot help but picture a young mother, already tight on cash, who went to bed feeling guilty for feeding her children something perceived to be unhealthy or unsafe—simply because she could not afford another, more expensive option.
I truly hope Secretary Vilsack’s interest is enough to stimulate a real discussion about this technology.
(Feature image via Alabama A&M University)