BioBeef Blog: False and Misleading

By Alison Van Eenennaam –

The standard for voluntary food labeling in the US is that it must be “truthful and not misleading”. I wish that was true for all speech. In this era of alternative facts and disdain for expertise, there are many politicized topics where objective facts and inconvenient truths are ignored if they don’t match up with preexisting beliefs.

Although many on the left like to point fingers at the right as science denialists when it comes to climate change, there are also some topics such as vaccines and GMOs that are sacred cows, facts be damned for some left of center folks.

I am a faculty member at UC Davis, and I happen to work in animal agriculture. Our sector, in particular, has been the target of many misinformation campaigns. Think of the “pink slime” lawsuit that was just settled between a producer of lean finely textured beef and ABC News. Meanwhile,  people routinely reach for milk labelled free of antibiotics, despite the fact that all milk is free of antibiotics This flows from the oft-repeated myth that dairy cows are “pumped full” of antibiotics. They are not, despite what this misleading labeling might have you believe, and every single tanker of milk in the state is tested prior to sale to ensure it contains no antibiotic residues.

Perhaps nowhere is food fear-mongering more prevalent than in the toxic debate around genetic engineering and “GMOs”. The 51% gap in perception between the public’s feelings on the safety of GMOs and the understanding of the scientific community (37% of the public think GE products are safe versus 88% of scientists) is greater than the gap for any other topic, including anthropogenic climate change.

For 20 years, thousands of studies, eleven National Academies reports, and indeed every major scientific society in the world have  attempted to interject objective evidence of GMO safety into the debate without making much progress. The fear-mongering, however, has been relentless – and often – disingenuous, as evidenced by the “non-GMO” labeled rock salt that has popped up in the grocery story (spoiler alert – salt doesn’t contain DNA so salt cannot be genetically engineered – all salt is “non-GMO” salt). But, it is much easier to sell fear than science.