Do our food labels need warning labels?

The purpose of a food label is to help consumers make smart decisions about what to buy and eat.

But what if these labels confused people instead of informed them? Or worse yet, what if labels actually misled consumers?

Thats the problem with legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year to require special labels for food with genetically modified ingredients. Offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the bill threatens to hoodwink the public.

It would fool people into worrying that perfectly safe food poses a health hazard.

Suddenly, our food labels would need warning labels: Believe the contents of this label at your own risk.

The dangers of deceptive labeling arent a speculative assertion, but rather the main point of a recent paper by Juanjuan Zhang, a marketing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mandatory disclosure of GMOs in food products lowers consumers perceived GMO safety, she writes in Policy and Inference: The Case of Product Labeling.

Zhangs research reveals that the mere act of labeling food that contains GMOs is deceptive. It causes consumers to suspect that GMOs are dangerous, even though the safety of biotech food is beyond reasonable doubt, as organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have determined.

To arrive at her conclusion, Zhang conducted a clever experiment. She approached 200 people in several settings: in grocery stores, at a college dining hall, and outside a food truck that serves organic fare. Then she separated participants into two groups. The first received a statement that said the U.S. government does not require labels on food with GMO ingredients. The second saw a statement about proposals to require special labels for food with GMO ingredients.

Then Zhang asked both groups to rate the safety of GMOs on a scale of 1 (totally unsafe) to 5 (totally safe).

Her observations were striking. People in the first group had a favorable view of GMOs. They gave GMOs a mark of 3.62considerably more safe than unsafe.

People in the second group, whose experience was meant to approximate reading a label on food package, rated GMOs at 2.65i.e., substantially lower than the first group.

The different responses are entirely logical. Consumers assume that if GMOs are safe, theres no need to label them. If they see labels, however, they imagine that there must be something unsavory about GMOs.

Supporters of the just label it movement like to talk about the right to know. Yet Zhangs scholarship shows that consumer behavior is more complicated than a political slogan. Labels possess the power to mislead. That means our lawmakers must mandate them sparingly, and not just because a few special interest groups want the federal government to help them obtain a competitive advantage in the food market.

If Congress fails to resist the politicization of food labels, our food labels no longer will carry basic information in a simple format. Instead, they will begin to resemble long and complicated legal disclaimersthe kind that nobody reads, let alone comprehends.

So here are a couple of alternative mottos: Less is more. Keep it simple. These should be guiding principles behind the rules of food labeling.

Im not just a food producer. Im also a mother and a grandmother. When I shop at the store and decide what to put on the dinner table for my family, I depend on accurate and reliable labels. I dont want labels that push me away from safe and healthy food.

I trust scientists and food experts: GMOs are safe. They are part of a proven technology and have become a conventional part of agriculture. We eat them every day. I also appreciate that theyre environmentally friendly and highly sustainable, helping us grow more food on less land.

Despite all this, some people really do want to avoid GMOs. The good news for them is that they already have an option: They can buy food thats labeled organic. This way, they can be certain that their food contains no GMO ingredients.

Congress should reject this scheme to contaminate our food labels with distorted information. Maybe copies of the Boxer-DeFazio legislation should carry a special label for lawmakers: Caveat emptor, or Let the buyer beware.

Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology board member ( Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade onTwitter| Truth About Trade & Technology onFacebook.