Labelling Genetically Modified Foods

The New York Times has an article about the movement by environmental groups and organic farmers to require that products with genetically modified ingredients include a label mentioning this (hat tip: Tyler Cowen):

If the California initiative passes, “we will be on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s food supply for good,” Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, wrote in an letter in March seeking donations for the California ballot initiative. “If a company like Kellogg’s has to print a label stating that their famous Corn Flakes have been genetically engineered, it will be the kiss of death for their iconic brand in California — the eighth-largest economy in the world — and everywhere else.”

Well, maybe.  Labelling requirements don’t always work in the way that the Organic Consumers Association believe they do.  If labels give people information that they don’t care about, then the labels will be ignored.   The California initiative mentioned in the article brings to mind another California initiative: Proposition 65, which required all kinds of labelling in stores.  If you pay attention in California you will see various stores have warning signs saying that this store has hazardous chemicals in it that can be harmful to your health.  Most people don’t even notice the signs and no one, as far as I can see, pays any attention to them.  Why?  Because the signs are not credible: people simply don’t believe that the stores are dangerous and so they discount the information in them.

The genetically modified food labels may or may not have that effect.  It is possible that an alarmed public might react, especially at first, to the labels.  But there is a good chance in my view that over time they will come simply to be ignored.

In my prior post on certification, I mentioned this aspect of labelling requirements:

Another important benefit of this certification system is that it would provide the government with an incentive to select desirable certification requirements.  If the government requires excessively strict requirements, then lawyers and the public will simply ignore it.  In that situation, meeting the certification requirements would be too expensive and therefore few attorneys would do so.  As a result, few people would insist on their attorney having the certification.

Of course, voters who adopt propositions may not care about actually influencing people.  But legislatures or government agencies (who are the ones involved in regulating lawyers) are likely to both care and to have the knowledge over time of whether their actions are having a real world effect.

Some labelling requirements really are important and informative.  For example, the labels on movies, such as R or PG 13, really do matter to many people.  But many labels do not.