Why General Mills adopts GMO labeling, but Congress hesitates

General Mills has followed Campbell's Soup by promising to label foods containing GMO products to appease the public as Congress fails to reach a labeling compromise.

Diane Bondareff/Invision for General Mills/AP/File
Music icon Reba unveils herself as the face of the 2015 Outnumber Hunger campaign, a partnership between General Mills, Big Machine Label Group and Feeding America, April 13, 2015. General Mills has announced it will begin labeling foods that contain GMOs.

General Mills flew the white flag of surrender alongside a GMO label, as the company announced Friday it would place labels on its products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

This makes General Mills the second major food company this year to acquiesce to GMO labels and comes after the Senate failed on Wednesday to strike a compromise and override individual state laws. In January, Campbell's Soup announced a decision to break from the food industry line and support labels, saying that although they believe GMOs are safe, the patchy labeling requirements will confuse grocery shoppers.

"Although we believe that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food, we also believe that a state-by-state piecemeal approach is incomplete, impractical and costly to implement for food makers," Campbell's Soup wrote at the time. "More importantly, it’s confusing to consumers."

Statements by both companies reveal frustration with the federal government's inability to resolve the issue, which has taken on new urgency because Vermont's law requiring GMO labels takes effect in July. Food companies spent $100 million lobbying against mandatory labels last year, but with Wednesday's failure in the Senate, General Mills apparently decided the battle was lost. 

The food companies' position on GMOs is backed by the American Medical Association, almost 90 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the US Food and Drug Association, and a host of other organizations, but the public has remained suspicious of GMOs for over a decade. 

In 2003, in the midst of a push to support GMO foods by the Bush administration, 37 percent of Americans said genetically altering foods was a good thing, Pew Research Center found. By 2015, when the US House of Representatives passed a bill nixing GMO labeling requirements by the states, only 37 percent of US adults called the foods "generally safe" while 57 percent called them "unsafe," and half check their groceries for GMO labels at least sometimes. 

The conclusion? A majority of Americans want GMO labels – 66 percent want required labels with only 7 percent opposed, according to a January 2015 Associated Press/GfK poll. Companies such as Campbell's Soup and General Mills say if the public wants them, they can have them. They have not let Congress off the hook, however, because states can still enact different labeling requirements that will be expensive. 

"We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers," wrote General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening in a blog post. "With the Vermont labeling legislation upon us, and with the distinct possibility that other states will enact different labeling requirements, what we need is simple: We need a national solution."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association followed the General Mills announcement with disapproval of the federal government's inaction.

"One small state’s law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country," the trade organization for food and drink companies said in a statement. "Food companies are being forced to make decisions on how to comply and having to spend millions of dollars."

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