Big Food changes directions on GMOs

Several major food companies are now requiring their products to have labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ahead of the implementation of a Vermont law in July.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Young Jersey cows look out from a paddock at The Farm at Wheeler Mountain, a small grass-based dairy in Barton, Vermont (May 25, 2016). Vermont has a new law that as of July 1 is going to require companies to label (most) GMO products sold in the state. It’s a huge flashpoint in the national GMO debate. As of now, beef, milk and dairy products will not be affected by the law.

More than 60 countries have implemented genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling laws, according to the Center for Food Safety. This group of countries does not include the United States, which currently does not have a national labeling standard. Following a recent legislative win for GMO labeling in Vermont, and in response to the continued lack of a nationwide standard, major food companies are opting to implement GMO labeling for their products in the U.S. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that GMOs are present in 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn.

The decisions of General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra Foods, and Mars, Inc. to label products containing GMOs comes just months before Vermont’s labeling law goes into effect, on July 1, 2016. The law, called Act 120, was passed on May 9, 2014, and requires food to be labeled as produced completely or partially from genetic engineering. Violators of the regulation face a penalty of up to US$1,000 per day, per product. Opponents of obligatory GMO labeling have expressed concerns that products with a mandated label could dissuade customers from purchasing the labeled food and beverages. Gregory Jaffe, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, explains that “many organizations have provided misinformation to consumers suggesting that the ingredients made from GMOs are harmful. Putting even neutral information about GMOs on food labels might be harmful to a product’s marketability because of the misinformation that many consumers may have been exposed to.”

General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra Foods, and Mars, Inc. follow in the footsteps of Campbell Soup Company, which was the first big food company to voluntarily label its U.S. products and advocate for a national labeling standard. Steve Armstrong, who is the Chief Food Law Counsel at Campbell, says in a Heritage Radio Network podcast interview that “what Campbell wants to accomplish with pushing for mandatory national GMO labeling is transparency.” Michael Hansen, a Senior Staff Scientist with Consumers Union, states that the cost of labeling GMOs would be minimal. He explains, “an analysis of existing studies of the cost of labeling commissioned by Consumers Union and conducted by the independent economic research firm, ECONorthwest, found that the median cost that might be passed on to consumers was just US$2.30 per person annually, less than a penny a day.”

Food industry giants have expressed frustration about the absence of a national labeling standard. In a blog post published on General Mills’ website, Jeff Harmening, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for General Mills’ U.S. Retail, writes, “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that.” 

In March of 2016, Senate Bill 2609 was the most recent attempt to establish a national standard for GMO labeling. With Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and several other states hot on Vermont’s trail of developing state GMO-labeling mandates, the bill sought to avoid a patchwork of state-level policies by implementing a voluntary labeling program for food companies. However, the bill, which was sponsored by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, did not receive enough votes to pass. In an academic article published in 2015 in Business and Society Review, some main arguments in favor of GMO labeling were identified as the consumers’ "right to know" about specific ingredients and production methods of food products; "right to choose" what ingredients they elect to consume; and religious and ethical considerations.

GMO labeling has only recently become a legislative dispute in the U.S., coming into the spotlight via California’s rejected Proposition 37 in 2012. If the regulation passed, Proposition 37 would have required labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering and would have prohibited the labeling of GMOs with the word natural. The FDA is the overseeing authority for food labeling in the U.S. but does not require GMO labeling because, “as a matter of policy, the FDA views genetically engineered food as not materially different from traditional food products,” explains the aforementioned Business and Society Review article.

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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