A new consumer revolution could change the way we label food
There’s a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign going on in New York City right now regarding smoking in public places. The ads feature slogans like, “If they ban smoking in airports, people will never fly again,” and “If they ban smoking in bathrooms, people will never gossip again.” I thought of this campaign when I stumbled across a Reuters article on Tuesday describing opposition to a new law requiring that meat, seafood, produce, and peanuts be labeled with their countries of origin. Critics of the law quoted in the article foresaw disasters of nigh-biblical proportions: U.S. exports plunging, thousands of farmers pitched into poverty, $3.9 billion drained from the national economy.
Almost 4 billion bucks to label food products? Well, no, not necessarily; to be precise, the USDA noted that labeling could cost somewhere between $582 million and $3.9 billion the first year the legislation is implemented (assuming Republican lawmakers don’t succeed in their effort to block the law in Congress). That is a range so wide you could drive a Hummer through it; at the upper end, it’s what the feds are willing to pay to overhaul the entire nation’s notoriously decrepit voting system. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa — a farm state, mind you) found it “insulting that USDA expects us to believe that [that’s] the closest they can estimate.”
So why the extravagant figure, the fuzzy math? Scare tactics, it seems: Advocates of food labeling say the numbers are meant to discourage support for the country-of-origin law, which is ardently opposed by the Bush administration and much of the food industry. Next question: Why such strong opposition? After all, one aim of the law is to give U.S. food producers a competitive edge, presumably by evoking patriotic impulses in the meat aisle.
The answer, I suspect, is that the Bush administration and the food industry are trying to forestall something far larger than one probably-not-all-that-burdensome labeling requirement. What they really fear is a snowballing demand for accurate and informative labels for food in general — and, especially, for genetically modified foods. Allow one labeling bill to slip through, the thinking goes, and the next thing you know, you could have another consumer revolution on your hands.
Let’s hope so. The modern consumer activist movement in the U.S. kicked off in 1965 with Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and it acted mainly to protect the public from dangerous, poorly made, and/or overpriced goods. A few decades later, a second stirring of the collective consumer conscience began; this time, it aimed to protect not shoppers but workers — sweatshop laborers toiling under exploitative conditions to manufacture clothing and shoes for wealthy consumers.
A revolution in food-labeling practices would combine elements of both of these earlier movements, uniting fear for consumers’ own safety with concern about the impact of production practices on the broader world. This revolution has the potential to be bigger and more powerful than either of its predecessors, because it concerns the most central consumer good of all: the food we eat.
The first battle of that revolution has already been fought — and environmentalists won. In 1990, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), backed by enviros and health advocates, called for a national standard for labeling of organic foods. Eight years later, the Clinton administration offered up a standard so egregious (it would have slapped the organic label on genetically modified organisms, crops treated with sludge, and livestock that had been fed antibiotics, for example) that it elicited more public comments than any previous policy proposal in history. The feds retracted the bad standard and, in October 2002, launched today’s far more acceptable USDA organic label.
Without a doubt, the next decisive battle of this revolution will be fought over genetically modified food. In the U.S., the bill to require labeling of such food (which is sponsored by Democratic presidential candidate and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich) is presumed doomed in Congress. But elsewhere in the world, GM labeling laws are gaining momentum.
In England — England, mind you, currently the closest ally of the U.S., a moderate, capitalist, free-trade kind of place — agribusiness has already all but lost the battle. British scientists report that genetically modified crops are bad for the environment. British citizens declare, in survey after survey, that they won’t buy or eat GM food. British supermarkets refuse to carry GM products. And the nation’s five biggest insurance companies decline to insure GM crops, comparing them to asbestos and thalidomide: human and economic disasters waiting to happen.
Meanwhile, in the wonderfully absurd U.S., coffee must be labeled hot, but corn need not be labeled genetically modified. Happily, there are some promising signs that the time is right for a consumer revolution here on the weirder side of the Atlantic. Distrust of giant corporations is on the rise. Enron and WorldCom — and now Bank of America, with its mutual funds scandal — have shaken the public faith in big business. Many Americans are growing weary of being treated like second-class citizens by the Bush administration while corporations get the red carpet. Concerns about food safety and health issues are growing. The ballooning obesity epidemic is grabbing ever more headlines, giving Big Food reason to worry about becoming the target of tobacco-style class-action lawsuits. Demand is increasing for clear, consistent, independently verified certification that food is environmentally friendly, fairly traded, or free of genetically modified ingredients. (In one of environmentalists’ few victories in the last three years, the Bush administration got hammered when it tried to change labeling practices for dolphin-safe tuna — proof that the public cares about the cost of its food beyond the checkout line.)
Granted, a revolution can be lost, and the obstacles facing a new consumer movement in the U.S. are formidable. But as any student of martial arts or military theory knows, every strength is also a weakness. The vast size of the agribusiness industry, its entrenched influence over politics in general and this administration in particular — these are weaknesses to be exploited as much as they are strengths to be feared. Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor-elect of California today in no small part because the American public is fed up with politicians perceived as too insider-y. The Bush administration is in bed with enough industries to make a committed polygamist blush; pull back the sheets, and all those cozy alliances could end in divorce in 2004.
Another weakness masquerading as obstacle is the Bush administration’s prevailing climate of secrecy. Time and again, this White House has narrowed citizen access to information about the government (while, incidentally, expanding government access to information about citizens). Take the U.S. EPA’s decision to conceal data about air quality at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001. Or the restructuring of the rules governing the Freedom of Information Act itself. Or Vice President Dick Cheney’s top-secret energy task force, perhaps the most crystalline example of giving corporations unprecedented access to government while shutting out the public entirely. Grim stuff, all of it — but the truth will out. Lack of information is itself a kind of information; you don’t need to know where the light switch is to know you’re being kept in the dark, and to raise hell about it.
The Bush administration and big business have good reason to be wary of the seemingly innocuous country-of-origin law: It’s fundamentally at odds with the basic precepts of Bush-style politics, where laws are made for the convenience of corporations, not citizens, and information is as closely guarded as the Pentagon. That’s another way of saying that this law is all about transparency and consumer choice — which is why it might well snowball into demand for other food labels, including advisories about genetically modified foods. Will such labels sound the death knell for U.S. agriculture and destroy our economy? When pigs fly — and smokers don’t.
— Kathryn Schulz, managing editor