The Right to Know What I’m Eating

Magna CartaIn the debate over the labelling (or non-labelling) of genetically-modified foods, one of the most common refrains is that consumers “have a right to know” what they’re eating. I’ve commented briefly on that here before. (See “Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods?”) But it’s an important and complicated topic, so I’m going to say a little more here.

We first need to distinguish legal from moral rights. Legal rights are established through legislation or through precedents set by courts. But when people say they have a “right to know” what they’re eating, they’re not usually referring to a legal right (especially given that, as far as genetic modification goes, there just is no such legal right in the U.S. or Canada). No, when people say they have a right to know what they’re eating, they’re talking about a moral right to that information — they mean that it is ethically obligatory for someone to provide it to them. But simply claiming a right doesn’t cause that right to spring into being. It needs to be justified some way, grounded in some strong ethical argument.

So, when does someone have a moral “right” to some piece of information? The philosophical literature on rights is enormous. I’ll just offer here what I think is a fairly straightforward explanation of the ethical grounding of rights, without going into too much philosophical detail.

Rights are mechanisms for protecting important human interests. In free societies, for example, we have a right to security of person and a right to own property and a right to free speech, because we see these things as crucially important to living a good human life. We may have other interests or needs, but not all of them are protected by rights. Why? Well, it’s worth remembering that when someone has a right to something, this imposes obligations on other people. In some cases (as in the right to free speech) it means an obligation not to interfere. In other cases it means an obligation actually to provide something (for example, if I’ve performed my job as promised, I have a right to be paid and my employer has a positive obligation to provide me with my wages). It’s also important to note that, given that rights impose obligations on other people, we need at least to consider just how burdensome those obligations are, before we assert the correlative right with any certainty. (For example: even if you desperately need a kidney, you don’t have a right to mine while I’m still using it.)

Now, let’s consider information. Given what we’ve said above, we can say (at least roughly) that an individual has a right to a piece of information when having that information is necessary for promoting or protecting his or her most important interests. Some of my favourite examples:

  • In a democracy, we have a very strong moral right to know who the candidates for political office are. If we don’t have that information, it’s impossible to exercise our rights (and duties) as citizens. The intellectual tradition supporting this right goes back through over 2,000 years of democratic theory.
  • We also have a strong right to know our medical diagnoses. Gone is the day when “doctor knows best” was the rule. Today, we consider it essential to let patients play a leading role in decision-making about their own care, and information about diagnosis is crucial for that. In only the rarest of exceptional cases is it considered ethically permissible to withhold that information from a patient.
  • When arrested by the police, you have a very strong right — legally, but also morally — to know what you’ve been charged with. The police are agents of the state, and it is pretty clearly impossible to defend oneself against the awesome power of the state without knowing the charges laid against you. The right to that piece of information, then, is rooted in important limits on the power of the state, going back at least to the Magna Carta.

What about the right to know what we are eating?

To illustrate, let’s consider a trio of imaginary (but not implausible) cases where an individual might want to know something about what they’re eating, and consider whether in addition to wanting the information, that person has a right to it.

First, imagine you’re eating chicken gumbo in a New Orleans restaurant. Suddenly, you feel a tightening in your throat. You start to panic — you’re allergic to shrimp, and though no shrimp was listed among the ingredients when you read the menu, you worry that there might well be some in there. You summon the waiter and ask if there’s any shrimp in the gumbo. The waiter hesitates: “The gumbo recipe is the Chef’s most closely-guarded secret. I’m not allowed to tell you that!” Do you have a right to this information? Of course you do. Having this information is utterly central to your wellbeing: this is literally a matter of life and death. You don’t just want it. You don’t just have an interest in it. You have a right to it.

Next, imagine you’re a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. As you set a plate of cheese tortellini in front of a customer who says to you: “I’m a vegetarian. So I need to know, was the cheese in this tortellini made with rennet from a calf’s stomach, or is it from a vegetable source?” You reply, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I don’t have that information, and I don’t know how to get it.” Stunned, the customer replies, “But I have a right to know what I’m eating!” Does she? Probably not. Vegetarianism is pretty respectable these days, and is often rooted in very deeply-held concerns about health or animal welfare. But it may be nearly impossible, and certainly burdensome, for the restaurant to provide the information.

Finally, imagine again that you’re a waiter or waitress. As you set a plate of food down in front of a customer, the customer asks: “Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food? Do you have any foreigners working in the kitchen?” Appalled, you stammer: “Excuse me?!” The customer continues, “I don’t like immigrants, and I don’t like the idea of them touching my food. I have the right to know what I’m eating!” Does this customer have the right to that information? Most of us, I think, would say no, of course not. She might see that information as really important — important to letting her live her life the way she wants to — but few of us would agree that anyone else is obligated to help her live out her racist values.

I think examples like these help make clear that no one really thinks that we have a right to know everything we might want to know about the food we eat. When it comes to debates over the right to a specific piece of information about what we’re eating, we need to think seriously about whether a) that bit of information is central to protecting an individual’s interests, b) whether those interests are ones that we can agree, socially, are in need of protecting, and c) whether recognizing such a right would impose undue burdens on others.

Note: coincidentally, today happens to be “International Right to Know Day,” though its goal is to raise awareness of the right of citizens to information held by governments, not by food producers.

This has been such a popular (and controversial) blog entry that I wanted to add 3 notes:
1) A few people found the racism example above inflammatory. Sorry about that. The intention was merely to illustrate that there are some bits of information about our food that almost no one thinks we have a right to.
2) Over on my Business Ethics Blog, I did a related piece on the Consumers’ Right to Information.
3) I will soon be posting something here on the Food Ethics Blog about voluntary labelling and the producer’s right to tell.
Further Addendum:
I wrote a scholarly article on this topic, which you can find here: Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in consumerism, GMO, labeling, restaurants, safety, values, vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The Right to Know What I’m Eating

  1. Larry says:

    Good points, and where exactly does this all end? For example, do I have the right to know how produce was fertilized? After all, if manure was used (and they screw up the composting process, or don’t check it carefully) I COULD get an E. coli infection and end up on dialysis. I don’t see any assurances at the grocery store. The “natural” corn I eat could be full of fungal toxins (this one has actually happened) and I could go into liver failure. Do I get to see some certification of cleanliness? Ironically, the very same folks who demand labeling of GMO’s would be quite against any formalized labeling of foods that they support.

  2. hello chris, thanks for your invite.

    My comments here relate to questions of labelling around gmo. I’m not a lawyer or a scientist, but i have some interest in trying to understand how different people view these important topics.

    Traditionally, making choices about what was good to eat was based on experience. This experience was gathered and passed down over many generations – in this way people knew to trust certain plants as being edible and reject others. This gathering of accumulated experience, over thousands of years, was made possible because of peoples’ intuitive connection with their land.

    Especially over the last 60 years, people in ‘developed’ countries have moved rapidly away from being directly connected with their land and their food. And yet, the experience and trust gathered over millenia is still very much with us.

    Now, with gmo, people are being asked to trust a new food, and because there is no experience with it, there is nothing to trust. So my point is that surely, people have a right to trust in their food traditions? That means knowing when a food is a new food as with gmo.

    thanks for raising these interesting discussions – gavin.

    • Gavin:

      Thanks for your comment — and no worries, I’m not a lawyer or scientist either.

      It’s an interesting suggestion, but no I don’t think people have a right to information that would allow them to make use of their instincts.

      First, I don’t think the rule generalizes very well. Some people have racist intuitions, and those may even have served them well in their particular social settings. That doesn’t given them a right to information about race.

      Second, and more specifically, we know that human nutritional instincts are in fact very poor guides. My instincts tell me I should eat lots of salty, sugary, fatty things. Luckily, I’ve read enough about nutrition to know that following that instinct would be disastrous. (Note also that if we relied on cultural experience, most of us would have very narrow eating habits. I’m the first person in my family’s entire history to eat sashimi! My father had very, very different intuitions about raw fish than I do!)


  3. Gavin:

    I didn’t say they have “no bearing.” Some traditions are good, and some are bad. But it’s hard to see how a tradition of yours give you the right to some information from me.

    Also: I’m not sure just what it is you’re saying people trust. You seem to say they’re trusting their intuitions. But as I’ve already pointed out, those are not reliable. Why support something unreliable (let alone attach a right to it)?


    • hmm…. this isnt just a tradition of mine. i’m referring to how we arrived where we are now in terms of how we approach food – its a human thing – and has taken thousands of years to develop. you could call it our innate relationship to food. think of chinese food for example – all the influences that have gone into what we have now, have taken an extradionary amount of experience and creative intuition over time.

      actually, food is a tradition of humanity, it has different cultural ‘flavours’, but humanity’s connection with their food is a universally important issue. And how we relate to that food – what has over time, become indispensible to the survival of humanity, is vitally important.

      so, my point is that such an important tradition, which has been forged from many human qualities, including intuition, is worth preserving. gmo food falls outside this universal tradition – so i’d like to know if it’s in my food.

  4. Gavin:

    Lots of things are non-traditional these days. Most cows are bred by artificial insemination. Most crops are no longer weeded by hand. Roses are grown in hot-houses. None of that is in any way traditional. But I doubt anyone has a “right” to knowing how the cow that produced their milk was bred. I don’t see any meaningful way in which all those things are part of the tradition but small genetic changes aren’t. Change, in fact, is perhaps the only constant part of the tradition.


    • there is a big difference specific to gmo.

      with gmo, it’s a fundamental change initiated by a scientist in a lab. the food becomes the result of that science – and not nature (of which people are a part). the other examples you mention still rely on nature.

      the interdependence of cause and condition that has taken thousands of years to result in the food, is fundamentally changed. The tradition or experience to which i refer, is humanity’s way of feeding itself, based on being part of an interdependent view of nature.

      and yes, that process is in constant flux. but never before has humanity altered food in such a fundamantal way.

      so we have a right not to trust gmo food – until experience shows us otherwise.

    • bernarda says:

      We do have the right to know where are milk comes from. Does it come from cows that have been loaded with antibiotics, even gm ones like rBGH?

      The excessive use of antibiotics has led to increased resistance of bacteria to many of standard antibiotic treatments.

      Cows are ruminants and haven’t evolved to eat corn and soy, so farmers have to be careful not to have to high a percentage of these products in their feeding program, or their cows can get sick, and then farmers use more antibiotics.

      • I don’t have any strong view on rBGH. (We don’t allow it here in Canada, FYI.) Antibiotics are a significant problem, but I doubt it makes sense to attribute a consumer *right* to that information, given the criteria listed in my blog entry.

      • Given the growing body of science implicating certain antibiotics with illness such as Autism and ADHD, I think that if you suggest an allergy gives you the right to know more details about your food, then we certainly should have detailed information about what has been used to raise livestock before we consume its products. Some individuals with Celiac disease even suffer the ill-effects of gluten when consuming animal products from animals raised on grain.

        Personally, I only eat meat and eggs and vegetables from farmers I know directly, who are happy to engage in conversations about their practices and products. I believe I have a right to know as much as possible about the food I’m going to be putting into my body, since it can directly impact my long- and short-term health. It would be crazy to leave that up to chance.

  5. Yes, all rely on nature, but technology too. Tractors are not naturally-occurring, as far as I know. Besides, whether something is “natural” or not is a very poor guide to safety.

    There are lots of ways to change the genes of plants. Genetic engineering is just one. All involve some interplay of nature and technology. Our interdependence on nature hasn’t changed — we’ve been altering nature since time immemorial.

    • oh come on – no one buys the plant breeder argument. and now you are *defending* gmo – not analysing the *right* to know. gmo is fundamental change – without any track record. thats why there is no trust.

      • chris, whats your connection with gmo industry?

      • J.J.E. says:

        oh come on – no one buys the plant breeder argument

        This is completely wrong.

        Genes are shuttled around between organisms routinely in nature. And non-engineered mutations (whether they be amino acid substitutions, pathogen resistance gene duplications, or upregulation of pathogen resistance genes are extremely common) occur commonly in “nature” and often do important things, like confer disease resistance among many other phenotypes.

        Your assertion that genetic engineering is fundamentally different than plant breeding is fundamentally wrong. In fact, there is a lot more natural variation than you can imagine and it dwarfs what we weak, ignorant humans have yet learned to do in a directed way. To put it mildly, your opinion precludes a cursory understanding of the genetic basis of phenotypic variation.

        And how is plant breeding any better than genetic variation, whether natural engineered? You wanna talk Frankenfoods? Grafting is the epitome of Frankenfoods. Physically splicing together a Frankenstein of two unrelated plants to take advantage of the roots of one species and the fruits of another is exceedingly common in the “more natural” plant breeding and exceedingly rare (I know of no example that doesn’t involve the same or closely related species) in nature. Yet this is more acceptable than genetic variation, which IS common in nature? Your definition of natural is funky. If the manipulation is done by people with dirt under their nails on a farm, it is acceptable and if it is done in tubes by folks in a lab, then it isn’t? Bizarre, arbitrary, Hollywood caricature of what is and isn’t natural.

      • J.J.E.:

        Thanks for that.

        But I’d like to make sure that this conversation doesn’t drift into becoming just another yes-no-yes-no debate over GM.

        So I’d like to take what you’ve said and aim it back at Gavin’s original point, taken as a response to my blog entry.

        If I understand him right, Gavin’s claim or implication is that there is a tradition in food-growing that is a) long-standing, and b) sufficiently important to people that it generates a right.

        Your points, J.J.E., suggest (as I had been trying to do) that there isn’t a well-defined tradition of the kind Gavin sees. Or at least, if there is such a tradition, it can’t plausibly be defined as technology-free, and the addition of one new technology — GM — can’t plausibly be taken as a uniquely fatal break with that tradition.

        For my part, I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s a tradition of some sort (that you and I are not part of). And such a tradition implies a genuine interest in certain information (knowing whether your food is GM or not), but it’s hard to see that interest as sufficiently important to justify attributing a right.


  6. My intention here isn’t to defend GMO’s. They’re *your* example, not mine. I’m just responding to your claim that gm is somehow wildly at odds with a very valuable tradition. I just don’t see it. Choose a different example if you’d prefer.

  7. Gavin:

    I have no connection whatsoever to the gmo industry. My credentials are very easy to find. One click.

    I won’t insult you by asking about your connections to the organic industry. Why is it that so many opponents of gm are driven to assume that anyone who disagrees with them MUST be a corporate shill?

    But frankly, it wouldn’t matter. My arguments should stand on their own. If you have to resort to that kind of thing, we are really screwed.


    • so whats your final point chris? we dont see gmo in the same way – thats your right & mine – isnt it?

      i’m an organic farmer – but all my writing is my own view – that has never been hidden – the name gives it away a bit 🙂

      but surely as someone conducting a blog on *ethics*, its your place to remain impartial as regards the gmo, and prove the right or not?

      you havnt proved to me that i dont have a right to know whether a food is gmo.

      thanks, gavin

      • So an organic farmer is the first to throw the “industry shill” stone? My bioethics professor said “There’s industry, and then there’s industry.” An organic farmer is a member of an industry, one that has (currently) set itself as the de facto opponent of genetic engineering (But it does not need to be that way). If Chris could have been discredited for having an industry tie (which he doesn’t) then so too would Gavin.

        I’m in favor of genetic engineering, but I also have a pollination deal between myself, my bees, and an organic farm. What industry does that place me in?

    • Larry says:

      OK Chris, I’ll bite. I’ve been in the “industry” for 25 years. I hope that qualifies my views as being from experience and not merely supporting “pro-GM assumptions” or being a shill. Gavin, I find your assertion that GMO is “a fundamental change” somewhat arbitrary. First, you need to separate the method from the result. Second, much of what is on the market today (even things used by the organic industry) spent a large chunk of their childhood in a lab somewhere being tinkered with by a scientist or a breeder. Examples: tomatoes (intrgression of wild germplasm from South American “weeds”, often involving embryo rescue in the lab), canola (mutation breeding to make the oil edible), wheat (commonly subjected to irradiation for the development of disease resistance). These are sledge hammer approaches compared with GMO. And no one is demanding they be labeled.
      Oh, and GMO does have a track record. Over a billion acres now, over 15 years. You can argue about the results, but don’t deny that they exist, please.
      And one last thing. The “traditions and what people trust” arguments you refer to were all developed (probably on occasions too numerous to count) by someone taking the leap trying something different for the first time.
      And I doubt our ancestors had any safety protocol other than trial and error.

  8. Gavin:

    I don’t have a *final* point. I’m investigating a very, very difficult set of ethical issues. I don’t have a conclusion. That’s likely where I differ from BOTH you and Monsanto. You start with conclusions. When I published a scholarly paper on the labelling of GM foods, my intuitions were actually very different from my conclusions. In other words, the best reasons I could find succeeded in changing my point of view. I consider that progress.

    If you’re not interested in trying to figure out *whether* consumers have a right to any particular piece of information, you’re not obligated to. But I’m committed to continuing such conversations, and going beyond stomping my foot and insisting I’m right.


    • gavin venn says:


      as i said on twitter, disagreement is helpful. It develops all sides of a debate. but thats my point chris, you seem to have adopted a side, because you are making assumptions about gmo made by all pro gmo activists. so if you’d like to continue to debate gmo, im all ears. Because until we reach some deep understanding of gmo, peoples rights cannot definitely be established.

  9. Ugly Moe says:

    Speaking of tradition, does a Jewish person have a right to know whether their food is kosher?

    If so, what if GMO were considered “not Kosher”?

    If not, then I suppose that places those that wish to avoid eating GMO in the same boat as Jewish people that wish to eat Kosher, or Hindus that wish to avoid beef.

    • Moe:

      Interestingly, I don’t think Jews ever assert such a right. Their food tradition is deeply important to them (at least to observant Jews) but they find other ways to satisfy that need (e.g., special Kosher brands, Kosher restaurants, etc).


      • Carolyn says:

        I think Jews would be very concerned about their rights to know whether or not a given food is kosher if producers were prohibited from labeling a food as kosher. It seems to me (and this is purely intuitive on my part) that there is a difference between a “right to know” on the part of a consumer and a “right to tell” which affects both producers and consumers. I think this should be an element of ethics surrounding the right to know, which must involve someone telling.

        This obviously doesn’t apply to the GMO discussion since producers can clearly label foods as “GMO-Free” with no interference, but it has appeared as an issue with milk produced with rBGH. As a vegan, this issue is not one I’m particularly concerned with since I’m not buying milk made with or without rBGH. But my sympathies are with those who are forbidden to tell something they think of as important and with those who would like to hear that message and are forbidden to hear it by government fiat.

        In your example of Jews who want to keep kosher, they obviously do not expect manufacturers to be required to indicate kosher status of all foods. However, they would take to the streets if the right to label kosher foods as “kosher” were denied.

      • Carolyn:

        I think that’s an important point, about the right to tell. In fact, I’m going to be blogging about it soon. Because there is, in fact, some suggestion that the FDA is making it somewhat difficult for companies to label as GMO-free. They *do* have a document giving guidance on how to do so:
        Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering; Draft Guidance
        …but I’ve read reports that they are interpreting those guidelines pretty narrowly, in part because the exact meaning of “GMO-free” is not uncontroversial. Anyway, stay tuned for something from me on “the right to tell.”


  10. I think the use of toxic and persistent chemicals in consumer products, including but not limited to food, might be a better scenario to consider. Some chemicals are demonstrably harmful, known carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, for example, to which exposure may lead to adverse effects on health (perhaps not as imminently fatal as your allergy example, but still harmful). The most egregious of these are typically banned from use in food products and packaging. However, not all substances known to be harmful are banned from use in food and consumer products, and in some cases, bans take time to implement. As some hazardous substances may still occur in food and consumer products, the consumer may be exposed to them. Arguably, the consumer has a moral ‘right’ to protect him/herself from harm. This is reflected in the legal obligation – not a particularly onerous one, I might add – of food manufacturers to disclose ingredients, although, in my view, this obligation does not go far enough (e.g., “artificial colour” or “artificial flavour” isn’t very informative, when some of these are suspected or known toxins).
    There remain critical areas of uncertainty regarding the safety of chemical use in food, particularly with respect to the long-term and cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures. The precautionary principle is widely applied to matters of uncertainty in environmental protection, and ought to be extended to matters of human health as well.
    The burden of proof necessary to approve chemicals for use in food and consumer products has, historically, been light. As we understand more about the potential far-reaching consequences of chemical use and exposure, the need for a precautionary approach looms large.
    The moral right to protect oneself from possible harm, particularly where the risk and consequences of exposure are uncertain and where there may be limited options to avoid the exposure (i.e., the pervasiveness of the industrialized food system constrains consumer choice, growth of the organic food industry notwithstanding), seems to suggest that a right to know what ingredients occur in food products now exists, even if it did not before.
    I think society is increasingly coming to accept the need to protect that right, particularly for those food products aimed at vulnerable populations (like children).
    I don’t think the obligation created by such a right places an undue burden on the food industry (although they may argue the case).
    I do not think this ‘right’ necessarily extends to dining out, as you note. The available choice to the consumer (i.e., to not eat out) may not warrant the burden on the restaurateur of providing exhaustive ingredients lists.

    By way of disclosure, I have no ties to any aspect of the food industry.

    • Larry says:

      Are you limiting your desire for a precautionary approach to things you consider artificial or man-made? Some of the most toxic things on the planet are quite natural. Cyanide, for example, is found some seeds. Fungal toxins such as fumonisin (interferes with folic acid metabolism) and aflatoxin (a rather potent carcinogen) are sometimes found in crops such as peanuts , corn and wheat, to name a few.
      In the case of pesticides, insectides, and other things designed to prevent exposure to “natural” toxins, the burden of proof for release is NOT as you say “light”. Regardless of what you might think of chemical companies, toxicity testing is alive and well and extraordinarily costly. The real danger in these cases are the natural toxins.

  11. Celesa:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I generally think that with regard to toxic and persistent chemicals, what we have a right to is their absence, rather than info about their presence.

    But the controversial chemicals (or just ones about which we are uncertain) present a genuine challenge, I think. It’s not clear to me that individual consumers are generally well-served by saying “this product has x in it,” where x is some controversial (but legal) chemical. I suppose it allows the label-reading few to limit their exposure. But that interest can also be met via voluntary labelling (or by buying from companies that avoid ingredient x). But the labelling certainly won’t protect everyone (if, indeed, ingredient x ends up being something we need protection from).

    I hasten to add that I’m genuinely conflicted about this. Part of the problem is that controversy or suspicion is a matter of degree. The fact that someone out there (even some one scientist or a few of them) thinks x is maybe a potential carcinogen can’t plausibly imply an immediate obligation for others to take action. But it’s very likely that “serious” concern would generate strong obligations (even in the absence of legislation or regulations). I’m more perplexed by the in-between cases. Defining when there’s enough concern to generate a right to a piece of information is hard.


    • I see what you mean.
      And of course, vested interests make the determination of a threshold of concern even more challenging.
      I think part of the challenge also is that sometimes (even often) people forget that in the natural world there is no such thing as a ‘right’; it’s a purely abstract human construction. Further, we are quick to assert rights, less so to accept the concomitant responsibilities.
      Would that we had deep public discourse about these issues as a matter of course!
      Have a great day!

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  13. Anonymous says:

    I strongly beleive that consumers have a moral right to know what they’re eating. Although, as food (nutritional content, flavour, ect), a genetically modified food may be “substantially equivalent” to its conventional variety (although there is literature which contests this), the genetically modified organism from which the food was derived is often not. The processes associated with growing GM crops, or GM livestock (the processes of industrialized agriculture) have major environmental and social consequences. These consequences are most noticeable for those directly related to the food industry, and still affect those indirectly related (think ripple effect) . Ultimately, humans are merely an extension of the environment in which we live, and the processes that bring the our food from seed to plate make extensive use of the resources it has to offer, resources we need to survive. On this basis, I do beleive that our well-being is directly linked to the food that we are eating. Therefore, we have a right to know if our food has been genetically modified, because we have a right to make choices that do or do not support the processes that have developed it, as it has negative impacts on our environment, which consequently has negative impacts on us. If GM foods were labelled as such, we would be able to excercise that right.

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