Key summit set in genetically modified food label fight


Major players in the food industry have scheduled a crucial meeting for next week that could become a turning point in the regulatory battle over genetically modified foods.

Challenges to the use of biotechnology have created an “unprecedented period of turmoil” for food producers, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said in a letter circulated among trade groups that was obtained by The Hill. 

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“We have reached a pivotal point in this effort and believe now is the time to bring together a broad coalition to confront these challenges,” the GMA wrote in the letter, which invited CEOs and top industry officials to a Wednesday summit in Washington.

Just how the food industry might move forward appears up for debate. Though organizers of the GMA summit were tight-lipped, advocates and industry officials said the options could ultimately range from a coordinated attack against labels to acceptance of a national standard.

The GMA’s membership list includes more than 300 companies, including food giants Kraft Foods, Coca Cola and General Mills. The group declined to discuss the meeting or whether it would propose a particular strategy.

“As the policy debate surrounding this issue moves forward, GMA will continue to work with its supply chain partners to inform lawmakers and consumers about the significant negative impacts such labeling requirements will have on both businesses and consumers,” the group said in a written statement to The Hill. 

Opponents of mandatory labeling argue that foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are perfectly healthy and indistinguishable from “natural” products. Labels could create a false perception that the foods are somehow inferior, they say, and create a stigma that causes prices to rise. 

For years, farmers have planted herbicide resistant or “roundup ready” corn, cotton and soybeans that can be easily sprayed for weeds. The genetically modified crops are used in a variety of popular processed foods, including soft drinks, margarine and breakfast cereal. 

Food safety and public interest groups question claims that GMOs are safe, arguing the science is inconclusive. They have pressed for all GMO foods to be labeled so that consumers are aware of what that they’re eating. 

The fight over labels is increasingly being waged at the state level — and at substantial cost to foodstuff manufacturers.

Last year, major chemical and food companies spent more than $40 million in California to defeat a ballot measure that called for mandatory labels of all scientifically engineered foods sold in the state.

Similar labeling proposals have popped up in more than two-dozen states and in Congress, and the industry group says it cannot afford to fight them all.

“Today consumers have a high degree of confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply,” the GMA wrote in the letter. But that confidence could be eroded, the GMA warned, by 25 proposals pending in state legislatures, a ballot initiative on deck in Washington State, and the federal push for mandatory labels.

Thus far, two state legislatures — Maine and Connecticut — have approved legislation requiring labels on genetically modified foods. Governors in both states are expected to sign the bills, according to Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety. 

O’Neil’s group has pressed the Food and Drug Administration to act unilaterally on regulations for GMO labels since a legislative mandate is unlikely to pass Congress. The FDA has not responded to the request. 

Interests on both sides of the debate are watching the Washington initiative closely. Adoption of state labeling laws could subject food companies to a patchwork of regulations that would be far more costly than a federal standard, O’Neil said. 

“These companies would like to see any language that would preempt state law,” he said. “A federal standard would likely do that.”

O’Neil said industry concerns over state level action, therefore, have long begged the question: “When does the labeling fight come to D.C.?” 

Some industry sources said they viewed Wednesday’s meeting as a significant event, but declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issues at hand. 

Officials from the Produce Marketing Association were among those invited, though they would not be able to attend, spokeswoman Meg Miller said. 

As for the group’s expectations of what the result might be: “We don’t have any at this point,” she said.