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November 20, 2012

Slate: Government shouldn't regulate which foods are 'natural'

(Continued)

In that context, though, the agency was more concerned with purity than nature. The government tried to ensure the quality of food by testing its composition and making rules about its labeling. The FDA would try to fill the space that had opened up between consumers and producers in the 19th century and guard against the middlemen and con-artists who would pollute our food with hidden additives. The label on a product helped consumers see their food for what it was, says Cohen. It became a kind of window, opened up with the tools of chemical analysis.

Purity is a scientific concept, though, and one that can be quantified and printed on a label. It allows the government to make categorical distinctions between, say, a cracker made with 94 percent organic ingredients and one made with 95 percent organic ingredients. But the same approach does not get us very far when it comes to adjudicating what's natural and what isn't. Pure and natural claims often come together on a product package, but they're just as often contradictory, and neither claim implies that a food is really good for you.

Lawsuits like the one in Colorado may encourage the FDA to analyze what are essentially religious claims: that a Roundup Ready soybean is more artificial than a stunted heirloom vegetable or that dried pasta is more natural than dried milk. That's what the government should be trying to avoid. That's theology.

Wouldn't it be easier to leave these quibbles over nature to the side? If we'd like to know which products come from genetically modified crops, let's solve that problem without appeal to moral categories. Here's a message for the framers of Prop. 37 and for the FDA as well: Don't tell me if God created Goldfish. Just tell me what's in the package.

Engber is a columnist for Slate.

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