Food Labeling Follies

California’s Office of Administrative Law (OAL) recently made it official: Your morning cup of coffee won’t give you cancer. Next week’s newsflash probably will be, swallowing an orange seed doesn’t cause a tree to grow in your stomach.

After more than a year of legal wrangling, OAL signed off on a proposed rule exempting coffee from Proposition 65, a decades-old voter-approved measure that requires warning labels on products that contain chemicals the state has deemed potentially carcinogenic. So that means cancer warning labels and the universally ignored coffee shop warnings can be removed at long last.

That’s good news for anyone who was actually worried. But this the whole silly struggle over coffee warnings highlights an explosion of exaggerated food fears, a bureaucracy run amok, and the baleful influence of trial lawyers who have generated over $500 million in settlement payments for Proposition 65 nuisance lawsuits (not including awards from cases that went to trial).

The public never faced a real risk of coffee related cancer, of course. But prodded by activists and lawyers, California’s Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) wildly overstated the risks of a natural substance called acrylamide that’s found in many cooked and roasted foods, including french fries, potato chips, bread, cookies, breakfast cereals—and coffee. It ignored the assessments of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more than 100 studies showing coffee is safe and instead followed the dubious lead of a little known and completely unaccountable international organization called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

IARC, which is known to do the bidding of trial lawyers and which relied on questionable laboratory studies in animals, classified acrylamide as a “probable carcinogen.” In the real world, adults with the highest acrylamide exposure could consume 160 times as much as they now do and still not reach a level that toxicologists think would cause tumors in mice. Drowning in coffee, in short, is a greater risk than contracting cancer from it.

Consumers need useful, scientifically accurate, and truthful information about the possible health effects of the foods we eat, but this is not the way to get it. No one viewing this pseudo-controversy over coffee could conclude that Proposition 65 and OEHHA served the public well. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times predicted last year, the opposite is true. Millions of coffee drinkers simply ignored the warnings (and added what some trial lawyer would likely argue are dangerous levels of cream and sugar to boot).

Thus, we’ve reached the point where we need warnings about food warning labels, because they’ve become so confusing, complicated, and uninformative that the most rational course of action is to ignore them.

For more proof, look no further than the now ubiquitous “GMO-free” and “Non-GMO” label craze. The Non-GMO Project’s butterfly label alone is plastered on over 50,000 products in every grocery store in California and across America. Indeed, “GMO-free” label claims are actually worse than misguided and exaggerated Proposition 65 coffee warnings because they’re not only scientifically suspect but intentionally misleading.

“GMO-free” labels are found on products that have never had “genetically modified” counterparts. They’re even on products that couldn’t possibly come from “genetically modified organisms” because they don’t come from organisms at all, such as salt and water. They’re used to imply health and safety risks which, according to the judgment of more than 280 global health, safety, academic, scientific, and governmental organizations, including our FDA, don’t exist.

The FDA’s 2015 guidance made clear that such actions were violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act: “Another example of a statement in food labeling that may be false or misleading could be the statement ‘None of the ingredients in this food is genetically engineered’ on a food where some of the ingredients are incapable of being produced through genetic engineering (e.g., salt).”

The agency’s recently updated guidance once again makes it clear that the Non-GMO Project and many other GMO-free labels are “false and misleading” and violate long-standing truth-in-labeling laws.

Whatever information these labels claim to provide consumers, their purpose isn’t to protect anyone’s health or to provide useful information. Rather, according to the NonGMO Project’s Executive Director Megan Westgate, they’re intended to shrink the market for existing GMO ingredients and prevent new commercial biotech crops. Rent-seeking, pure and simple.

Food labels affect consumers’ choices, public health, and commerce.

Information-hungry consumers are the losers in this dysfunctional environment, and the government “watchdogs” aren’t helping. On one hand, California’s OEHHA, prodded by activists and trial lawyers, used the blunt instrument of Proposition 65 to concoct a nonexistent coffee cancer “risk.” On the other, the Non-GMO Project has been allowed to continue its deceptive “GMO-free” labels while the FDA looks the other way.

The public is thus whipsawed between overzealous laws that label almost everything as a risk, and the nonenforcement of laws designed to protect consumers from being bamboozled.

What we need instead is state and federal officials sitting down together over a cup of strong, safe java—possibly under the auspices of a group like the National Academy of Sciences—and talking seriously about how we can get back to honest, useful and meaningful food labels to which consumers will pay attention and from which they will benefit.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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About Henry I. Miller

Henry Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.

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