Trans-fats vs. Genetically Modified Foods

I’m blogging on the road again. I just presented a paper on the labelling of Genetically Modified (GM) foods, at Université de Montréal. (Terrific audience, by the way. Thanks guys!)

The main point of my presentation (based on a paper I co-authored with Melissa Whellams, forthcoming in the Journal of Business Ethics) is that there just isn’t enough evidence that GM foods pose any serious dangers to justify thinking that individual companies have an obligation to label their GM foods. The argument is premised on the idea that the only way companies could be obligated would be if there were one of the following things:

1) A law requiring it;
2) A serious threat to human health;
3) Recognition within the industry that labelling made sense as a shared way of doing business; or
4) A consumer right to the information.

We argue that none of these conditions obtains. In North America, there are no laws requiring labelling. The relevant regulatory agencies and blue-ribbon panels say there’s no evidence of risk to human health. And there’s certainly no concensus within the industry that companies ought to label.
Finally, on the issue of rights: we note that though rights talk is rhetorically potent, we find little by way of cogent argumentation regarding the grounding of a consumer right to know, in this case. The interests at stake here simply aren’t sufficiently compelling to justify a rights claim; there are competing rights and interests (e.g., the rights & interests of farmers & retailers) that need to be taken into account; and, even if there were a right to this information, it’s not clear that attributing an obligation to individual companies would be a reasonable way of satisfying that right.
So, no corporate obligation.

Contrast this case with the case of trans fats. Trans fats are clearly, undeniably bad for us (though, as with most things that are bad for us, the danger depends on the quantity consumed). No one denies that. Hence some governments, including the City of New York, have banned trans fats from restaurant kitchens. Some people will take this as a precedent for stricter controls on GM foods. But two things need to be pointed out.

First, note that even though trans fats are bad, unilateral action by one or a few restaurants would have had a negligeable (perhaps literally zero) effect on anyone’s health. Even in the case of a chain as popular as McDonald’s, few people eat enough of the chain’s food that elimination of trans fats from it would have any effect. The hope — the evidence — is that a ban on trans fats across the board is going to do some good.

Second, note that even though the dangers of trans fats are undeniable, it’s still ethically controversial (though perhaps not indefensible) for a government to ban them. People like the cheap, tasty fries that emerge from McDonalds’ deep fryers. And there’s very little chance, at this point, that people are uninformed about the dangers of fast food. So, a law banning even those notoriously-unhealthy trans fats is in direct violation of the time-honoured principle (credited to J.S. Mill) known as “the Harm Principle.” That principle basically says that laws should be passed to protect people from each other, not from themselves. Of course, governments violate this principle all the time, but doing so often stirs up controversy, and pretty much always requires some special justification.
So, even for products that we know are dangerous, regulation is the only effective solution, and special justification is required for intervening in individual decision-making. Seen in this light, unilateral labelling of GM foods looks pretty tough to support.

8 comments so far

  1. Colin on

    The McDonald’s point: I agree by this point people know McDonald’s isn’t good for you, and yes should be able to eat there knowing it isn’t good for them. I don’t think taking the transfat out of frito-lays did much except justify multi-million-dollar design and printing costs. But we get to eat these things knowing what we’re doing.If McDonald’s wanted to open restaurants under a different name that implied it was healthy selling the same food, I might argue against it. You see that’s the point it’s ok for us to choose to do things that are bad for us as long as we know what we’re choosing.Just as people now are not given the choice to eat non-GM foods, because not only are manufacturers not required to mark their products as containing GM ingredients, but as far as I knew they are not allowed to label their products as NOT containing GM Foods. Please correct me if I’m wrong but I remember when this law passed in Canada and I have never seen a NON GMO label like the one in your picture.We have yet to see any long-term effects of these new modified species but I will bet you this will be like so many technological advancements, like blood-letting, radiation therapy, smoking, chemical fertilizers, cellphones, [the list goes on], time will tell us it was a TERRIBLE idea long after it’s too late and fairly entrenched in our cultures, with too many peoples’ livelihoods based on them.We have to call for these foods to be ‘dangerous until proven safe,’ especially at a time when there is a health uproar around natural health products which are usually simple plants that have been consumed by people for millenia and should get the same ‘safe until proven dangerous’ status. The problem is that high-technology gets high funding and makes big bucks so the endless doubt arguments have to be applied, whereas if you can just grow some plants and feel a bit better then there is no money being made by anybody.If that line of thinking is too socialist-materialist for you then how about: I think I do have a consumer right to know what I’m eating. I agree that ingredients should be listed on food packaging. I believe that this should be extended to talk about the source of the ingredients as well, such as if the chickens I eat have been bred to have no beak or feathers, or if the chicken I’m eating has been crossed with a monkey or radish or fish or inserted genes thereof.With regard to point 3) it has been proven again and again that industry self-regulation only adds to the cartel-like nature of human organization unless receiving pressure from outside forces.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    I provide an argument against the rights argument in my article, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">“Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods,”<> Journal of Business Ethics, 74:4, 2007.Basically, I don’t think consumers DO have a right to know everything about their food. (Note, for example, that I don’t have a right to know whether the person who packaged my food is black, or gay, or what their religion was.) We should only invoke the vocabulary of “rights” with regard to that information when the thing being protected is demonstrably central to our well-being (e.g., the right to know what we’re accused of when arrested, or the right to know our diagnosis when in hospital.)

    • Anna on

      So, your argument is that food has no bearing on personal well-being?!!? I would strongly argue against that as would years of research on nutrition and both physical or mental well-being. Not knowing who packaged your food is a very different thing than knowing what your food is derived from, with the latter being much more relevant to well-being since food content is absorbed and used for your body’s functioning but packaging is not. The fact is, there’s really mixed findings about GMO’s and that the long-term effects are very much unknown bc they haven’t been around long enough to truly know. But what we eat is demonstrably related to well-being so consumers ought to be provided with this information so they can make informed decisions just as they are allowed when arrested or in the hospital

      • Chris MacDonald on


        At no point did I suggest that food has no bearing on personal well-being. Where on earth did you get that idea? Of course food matters enormously.

        As for the ‘mixed findings’ you’re referring to, please be more specific. The best science suggests there is no general risk from genetic modification per se. The expert panel convened by the Royal Society of Canada, for instance, looked at a mountain of evidence and found no general reason for worry. Whether our food’s genetic composition has been changed by one particular method (as opposed to evolution, selective breeding, hybridization, etc etc etc) simply has no bearing on whether the food is healthy or not.


  3. Cardiolabel on

    You can’t make a choice without information!
    Scientific evidence shows trans fat increases the incidence of coronary heart disease. In fact, there is no known safe level of trans fat consumption. While people are becoming increasingly aware of the heart-health risks associated with trans fat, our consumption of saturated and trans fat is very high.

  4. [...] may not have seen my postings (on my Business Ethics Blog) about the labelling of GM foods. (See here and [...]

  5. [...] (#12), not surprisingly, has made a couple of appearances. It appeared in a blog entry on “Trans-fats vs. Genetically Modified Foods”, as well as “Saving the Earth, One Big Mac at a [...]

  6. [...] another post, Chris argues that in the case of Trans-fats, there does seem to be sufficient threat to human health to warrant mandatory labeling, in contrast [...]

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