With big budget campaign battles and countless dinner table discussions, the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food ingredients is as hot of a topic as ever.
On the surface, it seems simple. Why can’t there just be a label on the food product letting the consumer know if it contains GM ingredients? Shouldn’t the consumer have the right to decide what is in the food they buy?
The reality, however, is not so simple, and much more difficult for the average consumer to understand in a headline or 30-second news segment.
“If you include certain labels on food on products, the costs for food will go up in the grocery store, but our side of the story explaining that is long and complicated,” said Mandy Hagan, vice president of state affairs for the Association of Food, Beverage, and Consumer Products Companies. “Their side is short and simple.”
Hagan’s first point in the GM labeling debate is that the food products have been tested extensively and have been proven to be safe.
“There is overwhelming scientific evidence for the safety of GM crops,” she said. “You hear the sound bites a lot that this technology has not been tested enough to know if it’s not safe. That is simply not true. We are trying to educate the public but it is very hard to counteract the propaganda about GM products.”
Consumer concern has driven state efforts for ballot measures legislating GM-labeling around the country.
“There are 25 states with labeling laws that are pending right now. A lot of them are in the Northeast,” Hagan said. “The states that have passed labeling laws already are Connecticut and Maine. However, neither of those states have legislation that has gone into effect. The reason for that is both of the states have trigger mechanisms in the bills, so that they wouldn’t take effect unless they have a group of states with labeling laws. So, they wouldn’t just have Connecticut with a labeling law. The laws won’t take effect unless four other states, one contiguous to Connecticut, have labeling laws. Maine has a similar law. We think they do this to avoid lawsuits. The thought is maybe that they would share the cost of litigation, or maybe they would avoid being the first to be sued.”
There are a number of challenges with state mandated labels. The logistics of tracing every food ingredient of every food product in the world back to its source and verifying that it is GM free or not is simply impossible to do in a cost effective manner. The end result is then a vague label on just about everything that does not offer any real information and adds to the confusion of GM foods.
“You don’t see many labels in the EU where they require them because manufacturers simply just switched suppliers and stopped using the technology,” Hagan said. “That is the concern, that this valuable technology could be driven out of the marketplace based on a misplaced fear.”
Nonetheless, states are pushing forward.
“The states getting the most attention are New Hampshire and Vermont. Those bills made it the furthest through the process. Vermont actually has a bill that is in the Senate that has already passed the House,” she said. “The interesting thing about that bill is that it does not have a trigger. If it passes, it will be the state with a GM label that does not depend on other states passing it.”
Another concern with state-by-state labeling is that consumers will have no consistency in the definitions, standards, or labels when they cross state borders, adding to confusion for shoppers and a logistical nightmare for food manufacturers.
“That is why we are ultimately supporting federal legislation to avoid a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. We would support a federal label that is consistent, avoids confusion, and realistically informs consumers,” Hagan said. “We want consumers to have consistent information. We like the voluntary labels that we are seeing now from Cheerios and other products that tell consumers that the product does not contain any GM ingredients. We want this to be consistent and have a definition so that when the consumer buys it, they know exactly what they are getting.”