Is Labeling Israeli Products Akin to Labeling Genetically Modified Foods?

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 3, 2013.

This week, despite pleas from the United States, Germany announced its formal backing of EU efforts to put “Made in Israel” labels on products made within the 1967 borders. Their support to distinguish products manufactured in the West Bank is particularly notable given Germany’s reputation as one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the European Union; they join 13 other EU countries that stand behind such legislation.

The movement to designate Israeli exports that come from the West Bank is happening alongside another labeling movement: demarcating genetically modified food (GMOs). The two, while holding significant differences, also share some interesting characteristics.

By way of background—the proposed EU legislation would make goods and produce from beyond the Green Line ineligible to enter the EU with duty free status, unlike products from within the 1967 borders. Since 2005, Israeli exporters to EU countries have had to include zip codes and place names indicating where things were manufactured on import papers invoiced to EU tax authorities. However, given the rapid increase of settlement expansion, the EU decided that the products themselves must be marked so consumers can identify a product’s origin.

Israel claims the EU is imposing a discriminatory double standard given that there is no similar movement to label products coming from other countries with territorial disputes like Tibet, Kashmir, and northern Cyprus. Yigal Delmonti, the spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, even responded to Germany’s announcement saying that “Germany’s policy of labeling is reminiscent of dark days.”

With regards to GMOs, organizations like Montsanso, DuPont, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have led the political effort to oppose GMO labeling. Montsano argues that “food companies are in the best position to determine what type of information meets the needs and desires of their customers.”

Which brings us to the similarities.

First, both movements are explicit that they are not advocating warning labels. As prominent U.S. legislators introduce federal GMO labeling bills, while over 20 more states consider additional GMO legislation, they, along with supporters of the EU’s proposed “Made in Israel” labels are insistent that these are not meant to editorialize or endorse one position or another, but merely provide the consumers with more information to make their own decisions.

Second, both movements raise concerns of potential worse next-steps. Supporters of GMOs worry that labeling products will cause ill-informed consumers to avoid products that do not actually pose any detrimental effect, leading to massive drops in sales, which would then result in fewer genetically engineered fields and less research into new and improved GMOs. Groups that oppose the EU legislation, like the Israeli government, argue that this would merely be the first step to a full-fledged boycott of Israeli products. However, European officials say that labeling products is far from boycotting products, because it simply provides a service to the consumer. Likewise, advocates of GMO labels insist that given the unanswered questions about long-term health effects and environmental implications, consumers have a right to know where the food they eat is coming from to make that choice for themselves.

Third, large numbers of people support such labels. In the United States, an ABC News poll found that 93 percent of Americans want GMO labels. A more recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found the number to be 82 percent. In the EU, over half of the 27 countries have come out in formal support of such product labeling. (The Netherlands, another one of Israel’s strongest EU allies, has also supported the move.)

And lastly, whether true or not, opponents of labels both appear as though they have something to hide. When GMO supporters declare they are worried that if Americans see a GMO label, they’ll be less likely to buy it, they inevitably raise concerns and strengthen the anti-GMO position. At best, this patronizes consumers by sending a message that the manufacturer knows best. Others argue it could actually give power to conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists, thus hurting the credibility of the scientific community in general.

Similarly with regards to Israeli exports, Israel’s strong opposition to labels raises questions about Israel’s commitment to ultimately disengage from the land outside the Green Line. If Israel adamantly resists “Made in Israel” labels, which refer to Israel proper, then it seems to resist drawing a distinction between Israel proper and the land outside of the 1967 borders. This in turns cast doubt on their commitment to ultimately withdraw from the land for a future Palestinian state.

Perhaps the noise raised by those who oppose labels will prove to be more deleterious than the labels themselves.


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