Informative labelling

By Eric Crampton 03/11/2013 6

Suppose you went to the supermarket tomorrow and half the apples had a new sticker on them. The sticker said “These apples have been treated with 1-Methylcyclopropene”. The other apples had no sticker. The apple selection is identical to what it was yesterday, but today there are the stickers.

Now suppose I came up to you at the supermarket and offered you the following bet:

“1-Methylcylopropene is a gas that helps apples last longer. Here’s a brochure explaining it all. It makes apples better.* But I have a bet for you. I bet that sales of the labeled apples will be lower today than yesterday and that sales of the unlabeled apples will be higher today than they were yesterday. $10, even odds.”

Would you bet against me?

That’s why I don’t like mandatory labeling of GMO foods. A label saying “This product may contain ingredients derived from Genetically Modified Organisms” doesn’t just tell people that there could be GMOs in the product. It also tells us that the government is sufficiently worried about GMOs that it thinks you should be told about it.

There’s consequently a big difference between producers voluntarily labeling their products as GMO-free [although see here] and the government mandating everyone label products that may contain GMOs.

Here’s Mark Lynas from earlier this year. As best I can tell, the “consensus among people who know about this stuff” is as strong on GMOs as it is on climate change. Or at least I see a whole lot of people who know a whole lot about this stuff treating the GMO-worriers with about as much disdain as they treat the anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride, and “global warming doesn’t exist” people. I consequently conclude that there’s no scientific basis for deeming the risks of GMOs sufficiently worrying to get the hooples all riled up by mandating labels.

I also see nothing banning anybody from putting “GMO-Free” labels on their products for those who really do want to worry about that stuff. Even if their understanding of the science seems wrong, I see no reason that producers shouldn’t cater to their fears. It seems very plausible that they get very real disutility from eating things that might have had GMOs in them, and that voluntary labeling of GMO-free products can make them better off. Just like people who dislike chemicals are made better off by the availability of an “Organic Food” section at the supermarket.

For an opposing view, see John Small. New Zealand’s version of the regulation is pretty light-handed for processed products: small text noting in the ingredients list, and plenty of exemptions for restaurants. But by my read of it, if you had GMO oranges, you’d need to sell them with a fairly big “Genetically modified” sign next to the word “Oranges”.

* From Watkins (2006): “The rapidly ripening summer apple ‘Anna’ treated with 1-MCP that had less fruity, ripe and overall aromas, and were firmer, crisper, juicier and less mealy, were more preferred in sensory analysis than untreated fruit (Lurie et al, 2002; Pre-Aymard et al., 2005).”

Note however that I know basically nothing about this chemical; I just Googled for some food chemical that looked harmless.

6 Responses to “Informative labelling”

  • The use of 1-MCP counteracts the ripening effects of ethylene. It costs money to treat the fruit, so presumably producers have found it is economic to use it. There will be a certain time after harvest where untreated fruit will become overripe and unacceptable to consumers.

    If your thought experiment was to really include untreated and treated apples in supermarkets, the distribution system residence time may well have a consumer favoring higher priced treated products.

  • Sure, 10 paces at dawn…

    Weapons = apples picked 10 – 12 months ago, honestly labelled, ie one is 1-MCP treated and labelled, and the other untreated. I’d hate to be accused of misleading consumers.

    You might have trouble finding 10 – 12 month old untreated apples that don’t look like overripe russet varieties with the squishiness of rotten potatoes. Treated apples should be readily available in your local supermarket.

  • Ha! Run the bet when apples are in season and when there could be reasonable-looking untreated ones alongside the treated ones.

    My main claim here is that people would be put off by the “Hey, there are chemicals that have been used here!” label relative to the same product the day before when there was no label.

  • ” My main claim here is that people would be put off by the “Hey, there are chemicals that have been used here!” label relative to the same product the day before when there was no label. ”

    I realise that, but my counterpoint is that the treatment is effective and presumably economic – so, depending on the time between harvest and retail, either could “win” the bet. I don’t see any link between chemophobia or GE concern, other than consumer paranoia – justified or not. The world is made of chemicals.

    Customers expect good apples to have a certain appearance, so using chemicals to allow products to meet consumer expectations can be good business. Once regulatory approval is obtained, why would businesses spend time and money educating consumers?.

    I’ve no idea how prevalent waxing apples is in NZ, but even organic labelled apples can be waxed with carnauba wax, as the automated apple cleaning processes may remove the natural surface waxes as well dirt, so apples may be rewaxed for a shiny appearance. Non-organic wax coatings for apples may also include a fungicide.

    • I’m not betting on the difference between chemical apples and non-chemical apples, I’m betting on the difference in difference after labelling.

      Agree entirely that labels aren’t needed, that chemicals approved for use aren’t scary, etc.