Genetic engineering of crops and genetically modified (GM) food are hotly debated topics. Since California’s Prop 37 for mandatory labeling of GMOs was defeated in November 2012, more than two dozen states have introduced bills into their legislature that would enact labeling. Although the push for labeling appears to be a recent phenomenon, the campaign draws on a long history of well-coordinated and well-funded movement against so-called genetically modified food. This has made food and modern agriculture highly contentious issues in the media. Fuelling the controversy is the rapid circulation of often inflammatory (mis)information on the Internet via social media platforms.

So, when this little ‘Krafty’ gem came up on Pinterest a few months ago, I took notice. It was a photo of a label (much like the one below) with a headline reading: “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese!

When I saw the label, my first thought was it was total nonsense. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. It was, after all, a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at a local stationery store, pick up a pack of printer labels and develop labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the “GMO declaration” - “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing in a bit).

After some social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese (KD) imported from the US into the United Kingdom (UK). As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research - scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers. Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD through a colleague in London (below).

I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimately sourced photo of a label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:

The photo of Label 1 (on the left) was sourced via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD on her website that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. That photo also included a May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a 'time stamp'. According to the Food Babe post, the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London. Label 2 (on the right) was photographed by my colleague on June 1, 2013. This label was on a package of KD that he purchased at another local Tesco retailer in London.

There are some notable differences between the two labels. According to UK importers, retailers are responsible for designing and ordering labels. It is evident that there is a lack of standardization in labeling protocols across retailers – even those within the same chain (Tesco):

  • Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children" (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).
  • GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts. But here’s the real kicker about Label 1. Label 1 states definitively that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.”

So, what does this all mean? Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.

First, let’s take a look at additives. Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established. They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done. These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.

Secondly, let’s talk “GM Wheat.” Note: No genetically engineered (GE) wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. A few months ago, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field. This incident has only served to fuel the fire of controversy around GMOs. APHIS launched an official investigation and provides an update on that investigation here and Biofortified provides an overview at: "Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon."

From 1998 to 2005, Monsanto was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states and Syngenta has an ongoing program of field trials aimed at delivering a “GE” variety of wheat to the market as well. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. GE wheat is not available on the market. This makes the information on Label 1 (above) inaccurate and grossly misleading. The FDA reviewed Monsanto’s glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.

So, what is the real concern here? MISLEADING LABELS.

The case of Kraft Mac'n'Cheese in the UK would suggest that the EU watchdog is asleep at the wheel. Retailers can and do, with apparent impunity, attach a variety of inconsistent and misleading or false labels to a host of imported goods. These labels contain anything from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. I think that we can all agree that creates an incredible amount of confusion for the consumer and does little to incite product confidence. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of 'fuzzy' labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to manufacture controversy where none exists.

Needless to say, the recent discovery of GE wheat in Oregon, in combination with the controversy of the ‘Kraft’ label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat (and GMO food more broadly). There is a push for labeling of GMOs. Yet, the scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods on the market today are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods. Therefore, labeling GMO foods would be misleading for consumers and labels, by law, cannot be misleading. In fact, they only serve to “intensify misconceptions…” There are other implications as well, including costs that will be passed along to the consumer. If people wish to avoid GMO foods, they can choose to buy USDA organic (and bear the higher costs their choices impose, rather than imposing the costs on all the rest of us).

The bottom line? Your Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese is safe to eat. What is not so clear are the labels that exist and may be imposed on your consumptive products. I think the main take-away here is that labels can be powerful and influential tools but not, necessarily, in a good way. As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information. Don’t you?

Note: This is an updated and edited version of a post that previously appeared at Cami Ryan blog.