GMO, “Pink Slime” and Labeling Transparency

Earlier this month, the New York Times‘ editorial board published an editorial entitled “Labels for Controversial Ingredients.”  In it, the Times mentioned the recent failure of a Washington State ballot initiative which would have mandated labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and then stated:

Instead of requiring labels by law, it makes sense to let the food companies decide whether and how to inform consumers.

To demonstrate that consumers can trust food companies to do the right thing, the Times pointed to a recent announcement by Cargill that it will now label finely textured beef, aka “pink slime” in its ground beef products:

Last year, consumer opposition led some grocery chains to stop buying products containing the substance. Cargill conducted research and found that consumers “overwhelmingly” wanted the products clearly labeled.

The overarching point of the Times editorial seemed to be that corporations would be better served just labeling GMO rather than spending enormous resources fighting against state ballot initiatives, and that once labeled, consumers might not care that much about GMO in the end.  As a proponent of labeling transparency in general, not just with respect to GMO, I wholeheartedly agree.

But to the extent the Times was pointing to Cargill’s announcement as a reason not to pursue legislation requiring the labeling of controversial food ingredients, I felt (having played a role in the 2012 “pink slime” controversy) a need to respond.  I sent a letter to the paper the next day and then totally forgot about it.  But then I realized yesterday that I hadn’t seen any letters published by the Times, pro or con, regarding this piece — apparently it chose not to publish any  — and I thought I’d share my response here.

To the Editor:

When it comes to transparency and food labeling, the Times editorial board (“Labels for Controversial Ingredients” 11/7/13)  favors voluntary disclosure by corporations over ballot initiatives which would legally require the disclosure of controversial ingredients like genetically modified organisms. In support of its position, the Times applauds Cargill’s recent decision to voluntarily label lean finely textured beef or LFTB — dubbed “pink slime” — in its ground beef products, after the company’s consumer research found that “consumers ‘overwhelmingly’ wanted the products clearly labeled.”

But let’s please remember that Cargill didn’t conduct its consumer research or change its labeling in a vacuum.  Most Americans had no idea that “pink slime” was in 70% of our nation’s ground beef supply until widespread news reports exposed that fact last spring, and it was evidently such an unwelcome surprise that stores began dropping the product in response, causing serious economic harm to its manufacturers.   Without that blinding spotlight of media attention and the resulting impact on Cargill’s bottom line (an 80% drop in demand  according to the company), do any of us believe Cargill would now be a champion of labeling transparency?

The Times seems to be telling us, “Just relax and trust Big Food to tell you what you want to know.”  But Big Food acts in its own commercial interests and virtually every advance in labeling transparency we’ve achieved so far (nutrition fact boxes, allergen and trans fat disclosures, etc.) has been the result of legislative edict, not acts of corporate beneficence.

– Bettina Elias Siegel

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