Majority want more labels on food

April 17, 2012
By Mark Mellman,

In a country seemingly dominated by partisan polarization on everything from the cause of hurricanes to the state of the economy, it’s hard to find issues, outside of motherhood and apple pie, that can muster over 90 percent support. In a recent survey for Just Label It, we found one.

Voters express almost unanimous support for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. An arresting 91 percent of voters favor an FDA requirement that “foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that.” A mere 5 percent oppose labeling, while another 5 percent have no opinion.
Views on this issue are remarkably intense, with 81 percent not only favoring mandatory labels, but “strongly” favoring them. That intensity is also evident in the more than 1 million supporting comments submitted to the FDA — more than on any issue in the agency’s history.

Any position that commands support from over 90 percent of American voters has to cut across traditional partisan lines, and support for labeling of generically engineered foods certainly does. Ninety-three percent of Democrats join 90 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans in favoring the new regulation.

Given this overwhelming public demand, it is hard to imagine why the FDA has, to date, refused to do what the entirety of the EU, Brazil, Russia, South Korea and even China have already done — require labels on genetically engineered foods. The FDA’s rationale is as simple as it is absurd to shoppers on the street. They contend these foods are no different from other foods and therefore don’t require labels. Focus-group participants cut right to the core of the FDA argument: “If genetically engineered foods weren’t different, corporations wouldn’t spend money creating them.” It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of this crowd.

Voters reject the FDA view on its face. By 2-to-1, they say, “There is an important difference between genetically modified foods and foods that have not been genetically modified.”

Underlying support for labeling is a clear vision of consumer rights, as well as a deep-seated concern. Voters believe they have a right to know what they are putting in their mouths and into the bodies of their children. If you don’t believe Americans see that as a fundamental right, try convincing someone they don’t have that right to know. Moreover, voters believe they have a related right to decide for themselves what they ingest and recognize that, absent labeling, the right to decide is rendered hollow.

The fear is also clear. Only about 1 in 4 voters is convinced that genetically engineered foods are “basically safe.” That’s why a plurality favor banning the sale of genetically engineered foods in the United States altogether.

It’s one thing for a position to draw strong support in a vacuum. It’s quite another for a position to evidence robustness by continuing to draw overwhelming support even in the face of strongly worded arguments from opponents. We presented voters with exactly that kind of tough argument against labeling, citing the alleged cost and the need to feed the world, as well as suggesting that these are common ingredients. Laid against that was a basic right-to-know argument.

The result?

Precious little change. Eighty-nine percent continue to choose the pro-labeling position versus just 9 percent who are opposed (with 2 percent undecided). Once again, support cuts across all lines, with 85 percent of Democrats, 93 percent of independents and 88 percent of Republicans favoring the pro-labeling side, despite strong arguments from opponents.

In short, Americans are nearly unanimous in supporting a labeling requirement for genetically modified food, a position that is almost impervious to arguments from the other side. The only remaining question is whether the FDA will continue to be about the only group in America opposed to labeling.

Originally posted at

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.

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