Labeling Nanotech in Food

Abstract

This cases poses a hypothetical debate over efforts at the U.S. state level to mandate labels on food products containing or packaged in materials containing engineered nanomaterials. As such, it closely mirrors recent debates over labeling foods containing genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It confronts policymakers with issues of scientific complexity and uncertainty, with asymmetries in immediate and tangible benefits (e.g., nano-particles that can enhance nutrient delivery, keep food fresher longer) and far-off and less certain risks (e.g., possible health effects from long-term exposure). It requires policymakers to consider imposing rules that may put its producers and retailers at a disadvantage in a federal system where other states may not have similar rules. It forces policymakers to weigh norms of “precaution” in a context where “proof” of risk is hard to establish. Finally, the case mirrors recent battles over GM food labeling by weighing consumer “right to know” versus views (not all of them held by industry) that labels are unnecessary and unhelpful.

The case is designed for students in an array of courses that focus on decision-making in contexts of issue complexity and uncertainty about risks and benefits. It also highlights the dilemmas of policymaking in a federal system.

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