As state legislative sessions are virtually complete nationwide, a series of attempted bills to impose mandatory GMO labeling laws similar to what the state of Vermont enacted have gone absolutely nowhere.
Even though Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling bills, they’re contingent on neighboring states passing similar laws before theirs takes effect — which none did.
The net result is that the GMO labeling battle has now moved to Washington, D.C., where the Grocery Manufacturers Association, among other industry groups, is ramping up the pressure on Congress to pass legislation establishing a uniform food labeling standard.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. It would require the Food and Drug Administration to set standards for companies that want to label food products as containing, or not containing, GMO ingredients.
More to the point, Pompeo’s bill would preempt state attempts to mandate such labeling.
As part of the ongoing lobbying effort, food-industry groups have made an issue of the costs associated with mandatory GMO labeling laws, especially the clause in the legislation Vermont passed fining food companies up to $1,000 a day if a mislabeled product is sold in the state, even if the manufacturer wasn’t responsible. That could cost food manufacturers as much as $10 million a day, according to the GMA.
The issues of cost
So far, the “labeling-will-cost-you” argument has been a winner at the polls in various referenda that proposed imposition of mandatory labeling. In Washington state, for example, independent farmers and producers made hay (sorry — bad pun) by appearing in TV ads touting the negative impact that labeling would have on farm operations, and thus on food costs, propelling the “No on Initiative 522” campaign to a 55-to-45 percentile victory in 2012.
The arguments against the Vermont law also revolve around added costs. Food industry representatives filed documentation with the court from such companies as PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Kraft Foods arguing that it’s virtually impossible to manufacture most food products with non-GMO ingredients.
That’s a valid point. According to USDA data, 97 percent of sugar beets, 93 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of feed corn grown in the United States are genetically engineered varieties. One could make the argument that most of that commodity tonnage has been engineered to accommodate pre-emergent herbicide application or cultivation of Bt corn to combat the European corn borer, neither of which directly benefits consumers in terms of the quality or availability of “healthy” foods.
But consider also that almost two-thirds of the papaya grown domestically (meaning in Hawaii) has been genetically engineered to withstand the ringspot virus, which very nearly wiped out papaya production in the islands in the 1980s.
It's tough to argue that a majority of shoppers harbors some burning “need-to-know” that the fresh papaya they’re pawing over in the produce aisle has to carry a little “GMO” sticker. Like all retail produce purchases, consumer choice isn’t about labeling, it’s about three other critical factors: price, freshness and price.
In fact, I would propose that Hawaiian papaya would be the perfect product with which to roll out voluntary, industry-crafted pro-GMO labels. It’s a non-animal food, it’s fresh and healthy and it’s Made in USA.
From a PR standpoint, it don’t git no better’n that.
Think about it: The backstory, for the approximately 30 percent of shoppers who do read labels, would provide a platform to connect bioengineering’s incredible technological capability with a direct and tangible consumer benefit.
It’s a simple proposition. Just ask people: Which would you prefer?
A. The application of scientifically precise genetic engineering to save the Hawaiian papaya crop and ensure that a delicious, healthy fruit is still available to health-conscious consumers? (They are the same ones who read labels, by the way.)
B. Or, would you prefer the destruction of an entire agricultural and food-processing industry, the loss of thousands of jobs and multi-millions in economic activity and the disappearance of American-grown papaya from supermarkets nationwide?
The former involves the appearance of a little “Enhanced with Genetic Engineering” sticker. The latter involves . . . well, no more papaya.
Doesn’t seem like a tough choice.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.