The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non Technical Abstract

GE Food Labelling: Global Policy Polarization


Lydia Zepeda[1]

Department of Consumer Science

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Current scientific evidence indicates that only a few applications of genetically engineered (GE) food pose human health risks and some of these only for a small segment of the population.  Despite this, most government’s policies treat all GE food as though they were the same. 


The current US policy towards GE food is outlined in a 1992 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) document.  The US does not require premarket approval for GE crops.  While the FDA identified specific risks of GE foods to public health, it placed the responsibility for investigating and reporting these problems on the companies developing GE foods.  The US policy document recommends voluntary labelling of foods with these potential risks but opposes mandatory labelling for GE food in general.  A subsequent proposal by the FDA early this year will modify US policy.  The proposal recommends premarket review of all new GE foods on the basis that while GE foods are developed with techniques that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), the products created may not be GRAS and may have unintended affects.  The FDA reiterates its opposition to mandatory labelling of GE foods.  However, it does provide guidance on the language it deems appropriate for voluntary labels.


In contrast, the EU requires mandatory labelling of GE foods.  The legislation includes guidelines for wording and format of labels as well as establishes a 1% de minimis threshold for adventitious contamination.  The EU recently passed legislation that lifted a moratorium on environmental release of GE crops.  It is expected that new GE crops will be approved for commercial use by Spring 2002.


The US and the EU represent two different political approaches to regulation of GE foods.  In both environments, policy makers’ decisions regarding regulation of GE food are based on scientific information.  What greatly differs between the policy environments is the level at which decisions are made.  In the US, low-level political appointees make the policy decisions.  In the European Community, elected officials make the decisions.  In both cases, scientists provide advice and council, but clearly the incentives and accountability of policy makers are different.


Along with political differences, there are clearly economic incentives that influence the policy decision.  Not only does the US have the majority of biotechnology firms it has the vast majority of the world’s hectares of GE crops.  Further, biotech firms have a strong incentive to oppose labelling in the litigious US to minimize their liability exposure.


Other countries that have proposed moratoriums on environmental release of GE crops or mandatory labeling legislation include Brazil, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.  Mandatory labelling legislation has also been proposed both in the US Congress and within the state legislatures of California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Vermont and Wisconsin.  The policies vary with respect to threshold levels of GE material and whether the foods are used for human consumption or contain sufficient genetic material (such as oil).


This proliferation of policies has highlighted the need for international guidelines on GE food labelling.  The proposed Codex Alimentarius draft recommendations for labelling of GE foods highlights international differences regarding labelling.  Among the full working group, India and Norway have taken the lead in supporting comprehensive labeling, with India advocating no exceptions, no threshold levels and the inclusion of ethical grounds as a basis for labelling.  The US position is that it does not support labelling in order to facilitate consumer choice nor on the basis of ethical reasons. 


Consistent international standards are necessary to facilitate international trade of agricultural products and food.  The large majority of consumers want labels and labels have been shown to decrease consumers’ perception of risk and thereby decrease the risk of lost sales to farmers.  Given that most GE food applications involve foods that are traded and indeed are the major trade commodities, differences in GE policies can cost farmers markets.  Indeed, it is estimated that U.S. farmers lost $300 million in export sales in 1999 due to GE corn alone. 


This divergence in policies regarding GE food does not reflect a divergence in consumer attitudes.  The attitudes of US consumers towards GE foods are remarkably similar to consumers elsewhere.  Most surveys indicate a high proportion (82-93%) of US consumers want GE food labelled.  Outside the US, support for labelling is high as well, from 74% in the EC, 80% in Australia, 92% in the United Kingdom, to 98% in Canada.


That consumers are sceptical of GE foods is influenced by the fact that few current GE applications have any direct benefits for consumers.  Rather, the majority of applications affect production attributes and in many cases enhance sales of specific agricultural chemicals.  Potentially genetic engineering could be used to develop foods with attributes that provide direct benefits to consumers.  In the meantime, labels will not only allow consumers to exercise choice, but they have been shown to decrease risk perceptions towards GE foods.  Indeed without labelling it is likely that the development of agricultural biotechnology applications will be hindered. 

[1] Lydia Zepeda is an Associate Professor in the Department of Consumer Science and Director of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  This paper does not reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin.  Any errors are entirely the responsibility of Dr. Zepeda. 

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