Risk: Reason and Reality

Proposition 37. Putting 'Scary' Labels on Food Might Not Scare People As Much As You'd Think.

California voters will be asked in November whether the state should require labels to inform consumers that their food contains genetically modified ingredients. Supporters base their case on scientific evidence they claim indicates various harms from GM food. Opponents say the proposition is just trying to scare people out of buying products that scientific evidence says are safe. But both sides are overlooking a huge body of evidence about the psychology of risk perception, and how people feel about risk when they have choice, that suggests that even if Prop 37 passes, the Pro side won’t gain as much as they hope and the Anti/business side won’t lose as much as they fear.

The idea of Prop 37, of course, is that by telling people their food contains GM ingredients, it will freak consumers out of buying products that contain those ingredients, undermining the technology itself. Beyond the fact that these fears for human or environmental health are not supported by the bulk of the research evidence, the problem with that theory is that, even if people are worried about GM foods, the fact that the label will allow consumers to choose for themselves is likely to counteract at least some of that worry. When people can choose whether to engage in a risk, the very fact that they have that choice diminishes how worried the risk makes them feel. It is probable, therefore, that even if it passes, Prop 37 won’t cause nearly the concern its proponents hope it will.

Evidence from another food fight involving labeling supports this hypothesis. For years it has been legal to irradiate a wide variety of foods to kill germs, which makes the food safer and retards spoilage. (The radiation breaks apart the DNA of any bacteria living in the food, but is too weak to have any effect on the food itself.) Such treatment, like pasteurization, falls within federal rules requiring labeling. As a result, few food companies are using this technology, which could prevent millions of cases of food poisoning and dramatically reduce food waste, because they worry that labels noting that the food has been ‘irradiated’ will scare away customers, and profits. Sounds like the Prop 37/GM food labeling fight, right?

But most of the companies that have tried to sell irradiated beef and produce, clearly labeled as irradiated, find that they sell just fine. Not in every market, certainly, nor to every consumer, but Wegmans Stores in the Northeast,


Schwan’s home delivery grocers in the Midwest,


and Omaha Steaks (the online beef retailer, that now has 80 stores too)


all sell irradiated ground beef that is clearly labeled, and they report that it sells well (even though in some cases it costs a few cents more per pound). This despite scary claims from some environmental advocates that the process is potentially harmful (sound like Prop 37?). To be fair it should be noted that this is not always the case. Publix Stories in the south carried irradiated beef for a while but dropped it after weak sales, though a company official could not say whether the sales were weak because of the label or the higher price.

Still, the labeling requirement has already discouraged sales of irradiated beef..because of fear. but it's the fear of fear on the part of the industry, not the fear of the consumers themselves. Irradiated beef sales have quadrupled in the last decade, but only to about 13-15 million pounds, less than 1% of the annual ground beef sales in the United States. Companies are afraid to sell it, fearful that not only will those particular products not sell, but that their whole brand will be tarnished.  This despite hard evidence from actual sales that the label does not scare people away nearly as much as they fear it might, and in fact, the honest and open label establishes trust, and gives people choice, which diminishes fear more than it raises it.

Beyond that, the label can also indicate why the beef has been irradiated…“for food safety”. Consumer research by Christine Bruhn of the University of California at Davis has found that wording that makes the benefits clear increases acceptance even further, to as much as 60 - 80%. This makes sense in light of risk perception psychology as well. The greater the benefit a choice or behavior affords, the less worried we are about any associated risk.

The fight over Prop 37 will have a bearing on other food labeling fights, like whether to label transgenic foods (in which the entire food is genetically modified, not just one or two ingredients), or cloned foods (where the cow whose meat you’re eating is an identical genetic copy of its mother and is conceived in vitro…in a lab…rather than in vivo…in a cow). More broadly, the Prop 37 outcome will have a bearing on whether technologies that hold great promise for producing safer food (irradiated to kill germs), and reducing food waste (killing bacteria on food slows spoilage), and technologies (GM) that can facilitate more productive agriculture without using more land and water and fertilizing chemicals, will be used sooner, or later, or possibly not at all, to feed a global population of 7 billion going on 9-10 billion by 2050.

The evidence from the sale of labeled irradiated ground beef (and produce) suggests that the hopes of those who would kill these technologies are too high, and corporate paranoia about labeling is too severe. Providing labels like the ones called for by Prop 37 would demonstrate openness and respect for the consumer’s right to know and afford them reassuring choice. While it would surely make some consumers apprehensive, the nature of risk perception is such that these labels could actually encourage acceptance of technologies that could make companies a lot of money while also improving human and environmental health.



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