by Marion Nestle
Feb 1 2013

Wonder of wonders: food companies favor GMO labels!

Stephanie Strom reports in today’s New York Times that a group of food companies—among them several that put millions of dollars into opposing California’s Proposition 37 last November—are now favoring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Those companies won the election; Proposition 37 lost, although not by a very wide margin.   

But in the process, two things happened: they lost credibility, and they created a movement for GMO labeling initiatives in other states.

Advocates for GMO labeling figured out that although Big Food and Big Soda were willing to invest $40 million to defeat the California labeling initiative, they might hesitate if confronted with initiatives in many other states.

Good thinking.  Ms. Strom reports the previously unthinkable:

Some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.

Executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling, attended a meeting in January in Washington convened by the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussions of major issues.

…“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.

…Mr. Hirshberg said some company representatives wanted to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to proceed with federal labeling.

I have to say that I never thought I’d live to see this happen.  I was one of four consumer representatives to the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in the early 1990s when the FDA was considering approval of GMOs and whether or not to require them to be labeled.

We warned the FDA that if GMOs were not labeled, the public would wonder what the industry was trying to hide.  This, we said, would not only hurt the FDA’s credibility, but would end up hurting the GMO industry as well.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA’s main arguments at the time were that (a) it would be misleading to label GMOs because they were no different from foods produced through traditional genetic crosses, and (b) the process by which foods are produced is not material.

Even then, it was evident that argument (b) made no sense.  The FDA already permitted foods to be labeled as Made from Concentrate, Previously Frozen, Irradiated, and, later, Organic.

As I’ve discussed previously, GMO labeling is no big deal.  All the label needs to say is “May be made from genetically modified corn, soy, or sugar,” as Hershey’s does in Great Britain.

Let’s hope the FDA takes notice.


  • Mary

    May be made from genetically modified corn, soy, or sugar

    Wow. What an amazing phrase. Somehow this will solve allergies, diabetes, weight problems, end monocultures, and indicate herbicides?

    It’s not clear to me how that uninformative phrase can do all those things label advocate tell me they need it for. But that’s impressive. Must be written in elvish or something I don’t recognize.

  • Should they have to label every variety of every plant in the food?

  • Liti

    Everything we eat is genetically modified. What should be labeled are genetically engineered foods.

  • Liti

    What should be labeled are genetically engineered foods.

  • Craig

    Maybe I’ve become too cynical over the years, but is Big Food really committing to GMO labeling? Or is this a “charm offensive” public relations move? I wouldn’t put it past ConAgra etc. to make it look like they support GMO labeling for public opinion, then try to make sure it doesn’t happen. The health insurance biz has been doing this kind of thing for decades…

  • Allen Crider

    Big ag’s efforts in the California Proposition 37 fight has turned into a public relations nightmare for them. For an example, head over to Kellogg’s page on Facebook and see the flood of comments directed at their GMO food. It ain’t pretty.

  • One argument for GMO is that it will help solve world hunger problems. It hasn’t even come close as of yet. Millions are starving in the world and food prices are continuing to rise.
    Another argument; You won’t need as much herbicides therefore your food will be cleaner. Wrong again! Round Up Ready Soy beans are being sprayed with as much herbicide as its non gmo counterpart. Why? Because the weeds are becoming more resistant to the chemicals.
    Bt Corn is another one. This GMO corn actually has a pesticide in its DNA. The thought was that when bugs eat the corn they will die. Well the bugs are developing a resistance so now they are back to spraying the crops.
    If your veggies are coming from foreign countries what kind of chemicals are they using on the crops? What ever they deem legal. So if its DDT , a chemical that is banned in the USA , your eating it.

    Buy only local veggies. Try to buy organic. Avoid GMOs they are created by science in its early stages about 15 or 20 yrs. Not enough time to see what a lifetime of esating them can do to you.

  • Will continue to look at you posts, as I am a wellness coach and found this very informative.

  • Wow, I am surprised to hear this. I thought Big Food and Big Ag were in bed together, but if Big Food wants GMOs to be labeled all of a sudden, it leads one to believe they must be planning to lessen GMO usage in their products. Maybe it’s is just a marketing ploy, but I can’t see Monsanto being very happy about this. Maybe they are going to break up. And so close to Valentine’s day! 🙁

  • N. David

    Your comparisons to labeling as Made from Concentrate, Previously Frozen, and Irradiated are inapposite because those products are different in quality and characteristics than related products. And organic is voluntary.

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  • That’s ironic to know that sometimes just because they have money to pay they can always won the elections or the case ordering them to shut down. But in some point having this bigger companies doing their thing affecting wide range of populations without the knowledge of everybody still people support them despite the effects.

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