Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE sought a ceasefire in the nation’s fiercest food fight: GMO labeling.
After the U.S. House passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act last July - which would prevent GMO labeling laws at the state level - the Senate failed to move the bill and will reconsider it in the next few months. In an attempt to find a compromise that lawmakers could pass, Vilsack sat down twice with both sides including the Grocers Manufacturers Association and American Soybean Association (against mandatory labels) and representatives from the organic industry and environmental groups (for mandatory labels).
Whether food companies should be forced to label GMO ingredients continues to be a heated policy debate with far-reaching consequences. Special interests on both sides have spent tens of millions to protect their turf; most of the money to push mandatory labels is from organic companies that want a GMO warning label to scare consumers away from genetically modified foods so they choose non-GMO organic options instead.
They insist consumer sentiment is on their side and won’t settle for anything less than a required label enforced by the federal government: “I remain hopeful that Congress can craft a national, mandatory on-package solution that works for industry and works for consumers,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, an organic industry-funded activist group. His group also rejects the concept of QR smart labels, which would allow consumers to scan a code and upload information directly to a smart phone “A digital solution by itself won’t work for consumers, but could complement an on-package disclosure that provides factual information in a way that does not stigmatize the technology,” Faber said, even though the Just Label It website is filled with anti-GMO propaganda.
The Vermont law could be a cautionary tale for how challenging – and ultimately useless – a GMO label might be. In preparing to comply with the state’s law, Campbell’s announced last month it would label all of its products that contain GMOs. But in Vermont, the label is only required on food regulated by the FDA so it will exclude anything with meat. So Spaghetti-Os without meatballs will need a GMO label but Spaghetti-Os with meatballs won’t, even though they have the very same ingredients.
That’s one reason why Campbell’s now supports a national, mandatory standard for labeling GMOs. “We put the consumer at the center of everything we do,” said CEO Denise Morrison. “That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years. We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.”
How does a GMO label tell a consumer what’s in their food? It doesn’t. If Campbell’s puts a GMO label on its Goldfish crackers, the average consumer will have no idea which of the more than two dozen ingredients is from a genetically modified source. It could be anything from the soybean oil to the cheese to the B vitamin. And it’s meaningless because any trace of genetic material will have been pulverized during the processing stage; a Goldfish cracker isn’t a living thing. The same can be said of other Campbell’s products from Milano cookies to Cream of Mushroom soup.
The FDA actually cautions that the term GMO could lead to more consumer confusion: “The “O” in the acronym “GMO” refers to the word “organism.” Most foods do not contain entire organisms. In light of potential confusion regarding the meaning of the acronym “GMO,” FDA encourages manufacturers to consider the use of other types of statements.”
The bottom line is labels have little to do with consumer rights. Most organic executives and environmental groups want to completely abolish GMOs from our food supply, period. The label is intended to stand in the way of progress and, to that end, it’s already notching victories. On February 1, the FDA announced it will block the import of a genetically-engineered salmon breed it just approved in November until voluntary GMO labeling guidelines are established by the agency (the directive was included in the omnibus bill last year).
Some major food companies are pandering to activists by eliminating GMO ingredients from their products, but consumers might not like the results. When Grape-Nuts went non-GMO, it eliminated four vitamins that are genetically engineered: vitamins A, D, B12 and B2 (riboflavin). Non-GMO Cheerios also dropped riboflavin. Hershey’s will no longer use sugar from genetically-engineered sugarbeets, a U.S. crop that produces about half of our sugar supply, after an anti-GMO group petitioned the company for two years. American sugar will now be replaced with imported sugar from Latin America. And we all know what happened to Chipotle after it went non-GMO and focused more on avoiding genetically engineered ingredients instead of food safety protocol.
This a food fight that science and progress need to win. Appeasing activists with ulterior motives for short-term publicity gain isn’t in the best interest of consumers and could have long-lasting consequences we might regret.
Kelly is a contributing writer to the Genetic Literacy Project.