by Marion Nestle
Mar 18 2014

And on the GMO labeling front…

The food industry is so worried about the prospect of GMO labeling that companies have banded together to try an end run.  According to Politico

The coalition is calling for legislation that would require mandatory premarket approval of GMO food ingredients by FDA and grant authority to the agency to label products that raise safety concerns, set up a voluntary program for food companies to label foods that are GMO free, include GMO ingredients in a definition of “natural” foods and preempt state labeling laws.

Voluntary, of course, means that companies can voluntarily not label and maintain the status quo.

Considering GMO foods as “natural” is unlikely to go over well with anyone who already thinks that calling high fructose corn syrup “natural” is a stretch.

As for preempting state labeling laws, here’s what the industry is up against—a plethora of proposals—here summarized by  Politico Morning Agriculture:

- Rhode Island: H 7042, would require food and seed that contains more than .09 percent GMO ingredients to be labeled. The bill further defines “natural” to mean GMO-free.  

- Missouri: SB533 seeks to require the labeling of all genetically modified meat and fish raised and sold in the state.

- Vermont:  MA has already reported on the introduction last week in Vermont’s Senate of H. 112, a House-passed bill that would require GMO food labeling.  State Sen. Eldred French (D) has introduced S. 289, which would make manufacturers and growers of GMO crops liable for trespassing and damages should their seed drift into other fields:

- Washington: While voters in the Evergreen State knocked down a GMO labeling ballot initiative last fall, lawmakers are pushing for a narrower labeling effort that focuses on specifically protecting the state’s salmon fisheries in the event that FDA approves the genetically engineered AquaAdvantage Salmon. State Rep. Cary Condotta (R) has introduced HB 2143, which would require the labeling of GMO salmon:

- Alaska: State Rep. Geran Tarr (D) has introduced HB 215, which would require the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients with exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and foods processed with GE enzymes. The bill also would create an exemption from labeling forgenetically modified fish or genetically modified fish products”:

- Florida: SB 558 would require that by Jan. 1, 2016, GMO food items for sale in the state be labeled in text printed underneath the product’s ingredient list. The bill contains exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and processed food that a GMO ingredient does not account for “more than one-half of 1 percent of the total weight.”

- West Virginia: Mountain State lawmakers are set to consider three GMO bills — a labeling measure, a seed and crop disclosure initiative, and a liability measure for contamination crops at another agricultural operation.

- 2013 labeling bill carryovers: A labeling bill in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, HB 174, which was introduced last January, could see some action this year as efforts by many of the islands each tackle the cultivation of GMOs could spur action by the state house on the issue. Also, a labeling bill in Illinois, SB 1666, has picked up 12 cosponsors, many of them signing on just this fall.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seems to think that GMO labeling initiatives are winning.  It is now calling for “open dialogue.”  

And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

I still don’t get it.  What are the food and biotechnology industries so afraid of?

They think GMOs solve major world food problems.  If so, what’s to hide? 

  • Dylan

    I don’t understand the sarcastic “what’s to hide” comments that always show up. The nature of gm crops and the extent of their use in food products can be found by anyone with access to the internet. Even without labeling I don’t think you can call it hidden. Also the FDA has determined based on their own criteria that gmo labeling isn’t justified. I don’t think it is a stretch that the inconsistency in labeling would mislead consumers.

  • John Franken

    What are they afraid of? I think food companies are afraid of the massive disinformation propagated by Whole Foods and others. Is there any evidence (ok, any not-yet-discredited evidence) that GMOs actually do anything bad? I don’t know why you go after this epiphenomenal issue when the reality of industrial farming is a clearer danger. Why the hate?

  • David

    I would argue that the problem with GMO labeling (and other forms of labeling) is that it is based on the assumption that consumers can use this information in a meaningful way. For more than 20 years, food manufacturer’s have exploited the consumer’s ignorance to drive food choices towards ultraprocessed foods that are often worse for them through the use of nutrient content claims, structure-function claims, health claims, and most recently qualified health claims. Omega-3 fortified chocolate milk for your child’s brain development?
    I believe that GMO labeling will have a similar effect with consumers buying GMO-free Pop-Tarts for breakfast (and feeling good about it), rather than eating real food.
    Solution: We lack the political will, but remove all but standardized nutrition information and ingredient information from packaged foods.

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  • pawpaw

    I grow and sell food at a farmers market. Some of my customers ask specifically about this issue. Some ask other questions about the foods we offer. My limited observation is that folks who care about the GMO issue are well-educated, in this and other areas.
    As a seed producer, it matters to my buyers that my seeds are GMO free. I note here that Certified Organic seed and food is one way to choose GMO-free foods. But then the burden is placed on organic producers, and the needed info is not merely ‘on the internet’. The less GMO labeling, the more care I must take in sourcing inputs for my farm. When it’s not on the label, the burden is on me to figure it out, and sometimes finding who to call and what to ask is not easy.

  • Dylan

    I am curious. Can you give me an example where you have to take extra care to source inputs. As I understand it you must by organic seeds to begin with.

  • pawpaw

    When I can document that organic seeds are unavailable for a variety I want/need to grow, I can grow untreated seed. But then I need to contact the one/company who grew that seed, and obtain written documentation that the seed is not treated, also that it’s not GMO. Fortunately, most crops don’t have a GMO option yet. But as more and more become available, it will become more of a chore to keep GMO and non-GMO seedstock separate. Labeling from the start would help those contractually obligated to keep them separate.
    Another example: Last spring, I spent $200 out of pocket to have a variety of corn I maintain tested for GMO presence, before I could grow it for a small contract. That $200 made a significant dent in my profit on that contract.

  • SAO

    What bothers me about the GMO debate is that all GMOs are targeted, but genetic modification is a technique, not a product. What matters is not how the new organism was developed, but what’s in it or on it. The problem with Round-up ready soy is not that it’s a GMO, but that it gets doused with Round-up.

    In the end, a GMO label becomes a proxy for concern about food production, but it’s a poor proxy. It limits the development of foods that use fewer chemicals and does little to change the agricultural practices that concern us.

  • http://www.nutritionprescription.biz/ Michele Jacobson

    The mainstream food industry keeps missing the point: don’t use bogus labels of “non-GMO” (i.e. Cheerios); LABEL THE GMOs!

  • http://www.nutritionprescription.biz/ Michele Jacobson

    Hi SAO – You may feel this way about some GE seeds, such as those that are modified to be Roundup Ready, however seeds that are genetically modified for the Bt toxin express the pesticide in every cell of the plant. You are, in effect, eating a pesticide when you eat the food. I, for one, find it disturbing to think of seeds genetically engineered on any level.

  • SAO

    I have concerns about a number of genetically modified organisms on the market today, but my concern is what is in them and on them, not how the variety was developed.

    My argument is that we’re not addressing the right issue, not that all GMOs are safe and wonderful.

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  • amelie

    Informative and interesting. Thank you