During June, two items hit the news involving unsavory (to some) food options.
The first was a letter to the Record-Bee from a local organic grower taking me to task for my column, “Something Fishy This Way Comes.” The grower accused me of being against “choice.” She contended, if genetically modified (GM) food is not labeled, how can people choose not to eat it?
The second was a story about Japanese scientists developing a technique to make food from poop. You can imagine that a number of news outlets, including Fox News, were all over this story like stink on…well…you know what. According to the reports, human excrement is supposedly packed with protein and carbohydrates. All the Japanese scientists need do is combine poop with a “reaction enhancer,” then put it in a “magical machine…and artificial steak comes out the other end.”[i] Okaaaay, that sounds really appetizing.
Even though the second story is actually just a resilient urban legend,[ii] let’s run a thought experiment and pretend it is true. (“Thought experiment” sounds so much brainier than daydreaming, doesn’t it?). Let’s pretend a fast food chain has entered into an agreement with the nearby community sewage treatment plant to harness the culinary potential of its solid waste. Our (of course) fictitious fast food chain uses the magical Japanese machine and voila, s**t sandwiches, turd tacos, s**t burritos and even s**t on a stick.
Should the fast food’s products be labeled to say that they came directly out of someone’s colon? The argument to require labeling says yes. It goes something like this: We do not want to eat that stuff, and we have a representative government, so our government (federal, state, or local) should require such unappetizing food to be labeled for what it is.
You might think you want the source to be labeled, but I don’t think you do.
But, you may be saying, without labeling we might eat s**t! That’s true, but if you do not properly prepare organic produce, you also might eat s**it. According to the conservative think tank Center for Global Food Issues, using 1999 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, while only one percent of the United States food supply is organic, it accounts for eight percent of food related disease in the U.S. primarily due to a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (O157:H7)”[iii] found in cow excrement which may be used as organic fertilizer.
At present, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labeling for specific reasons. If a food is significantly different than its name, the food’s name must be changed to describe the difference. If it has a significantly different nutritional property from its counterpart, its label must reflect the difference.[iv] And, if a food has a potential safety issue, there must be a statement on the label describing the issue; such as if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.[v]
The inconvenient truth is that GM products are as safe as any other food products; whether poop meat would be we might never know. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk.
The reasons for a government to require special labeling should be for safety issues, not lifestyle choices. In areas of simple choice, it is not the government’s responsibility to require labeling of the provenance of a food’s origin.
Let’s be clear: the eating of GM food is not a safety issue. GM food falls into the same category as Jewish Kosher or Moslem Sharia law food: that is, that labeling is important to the followers of that ethic. Producers of non-GM, just as producers of Kosher or Sharia food, are free to label their food as such. But, if you really feel that you want to avoid GM, you can eat organic food exclusively.
The call for labeling implies that GM food should be avoided because the food is “unnatural.” This is the “ick” factor that happens with new technology; a 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believed in vitro fertilization (“test tube babies”) was “against God’s will.” In less than a decade, those against had dropped to 28 percent with 60 percent pro-IVF.[vi] Because beliefs evolve, the FDA requires labels on food to safeguard our health, not our beliefs. That is the straight poop.
Here is the bottom line: you are free to follow your beliefs; that is your choice.
[i] Japanese Scientists Create Meat From Poop – FoxNews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/06/17/japanese-scientists-create-meat-from-poop/ (accessed July 17, 2011)
[ii] It appears to be one of those urban legends that crop up from time to time that sound crazy and, given our accelerating pace of technological advance, plausible at the same time. See: The mystery of the Japanese “poop burger” story. http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/06/23/japan_feces_meat_viral (accessed July 17, 2011)
[iii] Wallace Institute Got it Wrong. http://www.cgfi.org/1999/02/wallace-institute-got-it-wrong/
[iv] Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether … (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm
[v] Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether … (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm