Food Policy in the New York Times
It is not uncommon for the New York Times to discuss food policy. It is much less common for the newspaper of record to discuss Food Policy, the Elsevier journal I have the honor of co-editing, along with my Mario Mazzocchi. Yet the Gray Lady did just that last week when it discussed food labeling:
The Senate could soon join the House to try to make it harder for consumers to know what is in their food by prohibiting state governments from requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. This is a bad idea that lawmakers and the Obama administration should oppose. …
There is no harm in providing consumers more information about their food. A study published in the journal Food Policy in 2014 found that labels about genetic modification did not influence what people thought about those foods. Some companies are deciding on their own to increase the information they provide to consumers without fear of losing sales.
The study in question is Jayson Lusk–whom we had the pleasure of having as a speaker for our Agricultural and Applied Economics seminar series a few weeks ago–and Marco Costanigro’s 2014 article in Food Policy titled “The Signaling Effect of Mandatory Labels on Genetically Engineered Food,” and it turns out I was the editor in charge of it. (I actually had to look, because although I have a good idea of what is in my editorial queue at any given time, once an article is published or rejected, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”)
In any event, here are the highlights of the Lusk and Costanigro study:
- Mandatory labeling for genetically engineered (GE) food might signal relative safety.
- We explore whether consumers exposed to GE labels are more averse to GE food.
- We find little evidence of a signaling effect resulting from exposure to labels.
- Stark differences in reactions to “contains” vs. “does not contain” labels exist.
- Aversion to a non-GE technology – ethylene ripening – is comparable to GE aversion.
And here is the abstract:
It has been suggested that the adoption of mandatory labeling for genetically engineered food might send a signal to consumers that foods produced with biotechnology are unsafe or should be avoided. To date, however, there is little empirical evidence to substantiate this claim. This paper utilized data from two studies to explore whether consumers exposed to labels on genetically engineered foods expressed greater aversion to genetic engineering than consumers in control groups, who were exposed to decoy labels unrelated to the technology. We find little evidence of a signaling effect resulting from the mere exposure to labels. However, in Study 1, we find signaling operating in another fashion: there were stark differences in the implied willingness-to-pay to avoid genetically engineered foods when consumers were exposed to mandatory “contains” labels vs. voluntary “does not contain” labels. In study 1, we also find aversion to a non-GE technology – ethylene ripening – that is comparable to aversion to biotechnology.
Finally, here is what Jayson himself had to say about the NYT editorial.