Whether or not you care if your food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the defeat of Proposition 37 was a major setback for the rights of the food consumer—the right to obtain nutritionally adequate, culturally accepted, safe foods, and the right to know what is in that food. I have argued in the past that the long-term social and environmental ethics embedded within our food chains prevent one from having this right, and this was only exemplified when corporations spent more than $40 million to effectively disarm the proposal. The question is: where do we go from here, and how do we once again address the importance of food labeling on a regional scale?
Losing the Battle But Not the War
Executives from PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, ConAgra, and 20 other major food companies, along with label advocacy groups, attended a meeting convened by the Meridian Institute this past January in Washington, giving hope to all label advocates that transnational food corporations will shift tactics. Not only did the defeat of the California proposition lead to a ballot initiative in Washington, but it also sparked legislative proposals in Connecticut, Missouri, New Mexico, and Vermont, along with a consumer boycott of organic brands owned by major food companies. To recap, transnational food corporations spent a large sum of money, which resulted in negative press, propelling the issue to the national platform, and alienating a portion of their customer base—a poor return of investment in my opinion. With Wal-Mart, the largest grocery retailer, receiving major backlash for selling genetically engineered sweet corn by Monsanto, their participation in the meeting brings hope to label proponents that their influence on policy and suppliers could develop the national labeling process.
Rethinking the Ideology and Importance of Food Labeling
GMOs have certainly prompted the necessary discourse for food labeling, but it’s not the only component imperative to the movement. The idea behind food labeling is more than just knowing what is in your food. It addresses the alienation between labor and product, the widespread disregard consumers have for knowing who made their food or where it exactly came from. This disconnect between product and buyer can lead to irrevocable consequences such as total neglect of retailer accountability. Genetic tests found ground horse meat in beef in Ireland, Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic. This past Friday, Taco Bell outlets in Britain found traces of horse meat in what was supposed to be 100% beef product. Furthermore, Britain’s Findus declared they were considering legal action as results strongly suggest their beef lasagna contamination was not accidental. Such negligence represents one of many flaws in our globalized food industry where due to the general lack of knowledge of where our food comes from or what’s in it, one producer’s complete lack of retailer accountability can destroy consumer confidence altogether.
With this recent scandal bringing labeling onto the international platform, in addition to the national attention already received, we need to use this momentum to propel the issue back to the regional dialogue. We must also really question what food labeling actually means and how it redefines how we eat. Promoting labeling within major food corporations through consumer pressure is the greatest chance of addressing the issue on a national and regional level. As consumers, we need to awake and start thinking.