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Labeling foods that are genetically engineered will not cause food prices to skyrocket

Consumers Union supports Washington state’s labeling referendum, Initiative 522

Published: October 2013
Labeling of genetically engineered foods lets consumers make informed choices.

On Nov. 5, Washington state residents will vote on Initiative 522 (PDF), a referendum that would require labels on foods that are genetically engineered (these are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs). Food-industry opponents of such labeling argue that the requirement will cause food prices to climb. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, disagrees with that assertion. What’s more, we believe that genetically engineered foods should be identified as such, the same as foods that contain additives or are frozen, homogenized, from concentrate, or irradiated. The labels allow you to make informed choices about the foods you eat.

Opponents of Initiative 522 claim it would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 a year. But that estimate is based on an assumption that if labeling were required, companies would immediately change entirely to nonengineered or organic ingredients, which would cost a lot. We feel that this assumption is not realistic, however, and in the long run, we don’t think consumers will see a price increase. Rather, we believe that some companies may simply label, and many Washingtonians may still buy labeled products, especially if they are cheaper than unlabeled or “non-GMO” products.

But if consumers avoid the genetically engineered products, we believe that the market will quickly adjust to demand. True, it might be hard today for a breakfast-cereal maker, for example, to find corn that isn’t genetically engineered. But if consumers demand nonengineered cereal, farmers will surely start growing it.

Considering also information from the 60 countries where GMO labeling is the law, we believe that requiring labels on food that is genetically engineered should not raise food prices in any discernible way for Washington state consumers.

Eggs would not be affected by Initiative 522.

What would change under Initiative 522

Under Initiative 522, items that would require a “genetically engineered” label include many processed foods made with canola oil, corn, soybeans, and sugar beets, all of which are almost entirely grown in GMO varieties in the United States. Foods made with derivatives of those items, such as high fructose corn syrup, sugar derived from sugar beets, and soy lecithin, would also have to be labeled. Thus, most cakes, cereal, cookies, sweetened soft drinks, tortilla chips, and many other types of processed food would probably have to carry a “produced with genetic engineering” label.

Most whole fruits and vegetables would not be affected by Initiative 522, however, because almost no engineered fruits and vegetables are grown commercially. Rice and wheat, as well as eggs, meat, milk, poultry, and fish, are also not engineered, at least so far, and so also would not have to carry any new labels.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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