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EDITORIAL: Labeling scary food

Washington state’s voters turn back a ‘frankenfood’ scare

- - Thursday, November 7, 2013

Science often comes to conclusions that are unclear and contradictory. One study says cellphones, eggs and salt will kill us; the next day another study says no, they won't. It's foolish to enact laws based on headlines and sensational studies.

Even the state of Washington, which takes "trendy" as a compliment, isn't willing to be ruled by the latest nutritional fad, the aversion to genetically modified food. By 54 percent to 46 percent, voters Tuesday rejected an attempt to require "frankenfoods," so-called, to bear a scarlet letter. Initiative 522 would have made Washington the first state to require seeds and foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled. Restaurant food, organic food and medicine would have been exempt.

Labels to help those allergic to peanuts or dairy have benefits, because an anaphylactic reaction to nuts, though rare, can be fatal. The dangers associated with genetically modified foods exist only in the mind. There's concrete evidence that genetically modified seeds have been saving lives and helping the environment.

The modifications of many crops, including cotton, enable farmers to significantly reduce the use of pesticides. Genetically modified wheat forms the basis of the "green revolution" in South Asia, which increases wheat yields, ensuring that millions won't go to bed hungry. Genetically modified varieties of food crops have boosted the food supply in the developing world, improving the quality of life.

Advocates insist they have a "right to know" whether they're eating food with altered genes. Perhaps, but the right to know must not be coerced by the state. The labeling of gluten-free foods serves a variety of needs, but the Food and Drug Administration wasn't satisfied with that label. The agency imposed a one-size-fits-all rule that's riddled with problems.

Any manufacturer can label a product gluten-free without testing if the final product meets FDA's fairly clear guidelines, but manufacturers either cannot or will not test ingredients sourced elsewhere. They can skirt the requirement by saying a product "does not use gluten products" instead of using the clear and regulated term "gluten-free."

So merely requiring a label is no guarantee that consumers will be better informed. That goes double for the more nebulous concept of "genetically modified" ingredients, where the process of identification alone can add significantly to cost without any clear health benefits.

Consumers who must know whether their groceries have been genetically modified, a vote with their pocket book is likely to be far more effective than voting at the ballot box. That will keep down the cost of turnips and carrots and 'taters for everyone.