Smelling Fishy


‘Tis the season of lutefisk–the time of year when untold numbers of Norwegians and their relatives here in the United States, eat a plate of whitefish made with lye.

Some people love the stuff. Others do their best to pretend.

The humorist Garrison Keillor once described the festivities: “Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat.”

Maybe lutefisk should come with a warning label.

Except that labels can be unreliable, as demonstrated by a recent article in the New York Times. It asked a deceptively simple question: “What makes a fish organic?”

It turns out that food labels are a very fishy business indeed. Many consumers, for instance, will see an “organic” label and assume that it indicates an all-natural, free-range, wholesome goodness. Yet fish sold as “organic” almost certainly were raised in a ‘managed’ environment-on a fish farm.

What about salmon that live wild in the pristine waters of remote Alaska? Those fish aren’t “organic” because their diets aren’t controlled.

“If you can’t call a wild Alaska salmon true and organic,” asks Sen. Lisa Murkowski, “what can you call organic?”

That’s an excellent question. It highlights the complexity of our food-labeling laws and regulations.

While most Americans do not often eat organic food, they consume food with biotech ingredients every single day – although most of them don’t realize it. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology recently reported that the public has “very little in-depth knowledge of the topic.”

You can say that again: Only 41 percent report even a vague awareness of biotech food, and 61 percent say that they didn’t eat any at all this calendar year.

Just because they claim it, however, doesn’t make it correct: I’ll eat a barrel of lutefisk if it can be proven that more than a tiny sliver of the U.S. population managed to avoid biotech food over the last 12 months. It has become an essential and safe part of the food chain. Over 70 percent of our supermarket-purchased food contains some element of biotechnology.

Despite this, 29 percent of Americans actually believe that biotech food is not safe. This is a terrible misperception: Absolutely no scientific evidence suggests that GM food is bad for anyone’s health. (In the poll, only 34 percent state, correctly, that biotech food is fine to eat. The rest of those surveyed admit that they don’t know.)

What’s both amusing and troubling about the Pew poll is that after showing that huge numbers of Americans are biotech illiterate, it proceeds to ask them more detailed questions, as if their opinions have much value. Pluralities of the poorly informed then claim that there isn’t enough regulation of biotech food and that the Food and Drug Administration should do more.

Nobody, of course, opposes basic safeguards for food safety. Yet these are already firmly in place: Despite the occasional high-profile news story about food poisoning (none with a biotech connection), never in human history has food been as safe to eat as it is right now.

The amazing thing is that when there is a threat–the recent outbreak of E. coli at Taco Bell restaurants, for example–we confront it with incredible speed. We contain the problem quickly rather than let it fester and grow. Minor challenges may generate headlines but they do not become major calamities.

Yet anti-biotech activists insist that our regulations don’t go far enough–and so they demand special labels for GM food. Their proposals may sound reasonable, but really they aren’t. Labels can serve a purpose when they convey basic nutritional information, but making a fetish of them yields the absurdity of “organic” salmon that have never known life in a state of nature.

As the Pew poll revealed, millions of Americans wouldn’t know what to make of the information that labels supposedly deliver. And if they actually learned what to make of it, they would come to know that these labels aren’t even necessary because GM foods are perfectly safe to eat – we’re already eating it. So when anti-biotech groups call for labels, they’re actually preying on public ignorance.

We should focus our regulatory energies on truly urgent tasks, such as making sure that people know what they’re getting themselves into before taking a bite of lutefisk.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology.

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