Layers of label only punish consumers
There is a scene in an episode of the cable television show "Portlandia" in which a couple orders chicken for dinner.
The waitress brings out a portfolio with a photo of the chicken -- his name is Collin -- and tells the couple where it was raised, what it was fed, and everything except its favorite song and whether it wore boxers or briefs.
That appears to be the direction some self-styled food activists are headed. They want to know everything there is to know about what they eat -- in addition to whether it was organically raised.
That is fine. Activists are welcome to carve a niche for themselves and their friends, but to require that every food meet that standard is as costly as it is unworkable.
Knowing how the food was raised ought to be enough. The USDA-approved organic label ought to tell everyone -- except the most ardent foodies -- everything they'd ever want to know about their food.
Californians last week rejected an eight-page ballot measure that would have, among other things, required that most foods that contain genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. The fact that organic foods already meet that requirement was even included in the ballot measure.
But some other facets of the measure appear to be arbitrary. Food and drink containing GMOs -- including alcoholic beverages and food served in restaurants -- would not have needed a label. If it's so important to have stores label food containing GMOs, why shouldn't restaurants and bars?
At first blush, the measure, called the Right to Know Initiative, appeared to be a fairly straightforward. If food has GMOs, it needed a label. But an array of exceptions and other quirks made it read more like a political document. It even told the Legislature that it could never repeal the measure.
"This initiative may be amended by the Legislature, but only to further its intent and purpose, by a statute passed by a two-thirds vote in each house," the final sentence of the measure said. That a statutory ballot measure would attempt to limit the powers of the state Legislature is a novel idea, but one wonders whether it is constitutional.
The people of California were clear in their rejection of Proposition 37, with 53 percent voting against it. Similarly, Oregon voters 10 years ago saw fit to reject a proposition to label genetically modified foods.
Other efforts to adopt label laws are under way, including lobbying in the legislatures in Connecticut, Vermont, Oregon and other states and a ballot measure in Washington state.
All of the efforts ignore the fact that the USDA organic label does what the GMO labels would do. They also ignore a stark reality faced by many Americans these days.
A young mother struggling to feed her children on a limited budget simply can't afford the extra costs of arbitrary food labeling. She is certainly welcome to choose organic food, but should she have to pay more for all food labeled to satisfy the whims of food activists?
Labeling is not in itself a bad thing, but unneeded and arbitrary labeling is costly, burdensome and regulatory overkill.