GMO-labeled food is coming to a grocery store shelf near you.
Despite a massive effort by a wide group of manufacturers and agriculture-related companies to derail such labeling, a handful of well-known brands have announced they’ll soon begin divulging their GMO ingredients.
Prodded by a mandatory GMO-labeling law in Vermont that goes into effect on July 1, in January, the Campbell Soup Company said it would begin using the labels. General Mills, Mars Food, Kellogg and ConAgra have since announced the same.
Among other things, opponents of mandatory labeling claim it will lead to higher family grocery bills and a patchwork of competing state laws that will difficult for companies to navigate and remain in compliance.
Despite those warnings, in mid-March, a Senate bill (the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Bill) that would override state labeling laws fell short of the needed 60 votes. The House version of the bill – which calls for a voluntary labeling standard – passed in 2015.
Following the failure of the Senate to pass the bill, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called out opponents for not offering competing proposals. “Simply put, if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same.
“And yet opponents of this approach would not put forward a proposal for a vote. Why is that? Will their proposals pass the Senate or better yet, the House? In short, where is their solution?
“Without their own solution, opponents of this bill must favor the status quo. We cannot stand on the sidelines and risk increasing costs for consumers and further uncertainty in the marketplace for farmers and manufacturers. If we do not act, everyone loses.”
Shortly after the Senate vote, Ross Pifer, professor at Penn State Law, spoke with Delta Farm Press about issues surrounding GMO-labeling. Pifer will participate in the Mid-South Agricultural and Environmental Law Conference in Memphis on April 22. Among his comments:
On the labeling efforts…
“For about five or six years, there have been strong efforts by groups and individuals that want to get the mandatory GMO labeling on products. Those efforts largely began on the West Coast through ballot initiatives. There was such an initiative in California in November, 2012. It failed to pass but it was very close vote.
“The following year, there was another ballot initiative in Washington. It also failed but, again, was close.
“In New England, roughly in the same time frame, a different tact was taken through the traditional legislative process to mandate the labeling. There were three statutes passed in Maine, Connecticut and Vermont.
The Connecticut statute was enacted in 2013 with the Vermont and Maine statutes in 2014. The Maine and Connecticut statutes weren’t immediately effective – they had triggering mechanisms that required, essentially, a number of GMO-labeling laws in other states before they became effective. So, those statutes still aren’t in effect.
“Vermont, however, is a different story. They passed a statute without triggering requirements. It becomes effective in July 1, 2016. That’s why all the focus is on Vermont.
"There has been litigation challenging that statute and, thus far, it’s been unsuccessful. Cases remain pending but plaintiffs haven’t been able to get a judge to stay statute.”
On the federal response…
“There have also been efforts within the federal government to address these GMO-labeling laws. That’s getting the most attention currently.
“The state statues would require a mandatory labeling framework. That means manufacturers and retailers would have to have the labels. The federal legislative efforts – what’s known as the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know Act) – would provide a framework for voluntary labeling.
"That would preempt any state legislation and keep states like Vermont from individual requirements.
“So, there are two main things the federal legislation would do. First, it would shift the focus from the state to the federal government labeling requirements. Second, it would move from mandatory to voluntary labeling.
“There are some competing legislative proposals in Congress. There’s even legislation that would require mandatory labeling. But that hasn’t gained any traction.”
What about the claims that without Congress stepping in, the state laws would cost consumers an enormous amount of money?
“When you look at why it would cost more – and I certainly don’t know what the exact costs are – there are concerns with relabeling. Companies, of course, redo labels from time to time anyway. But under the state laws, they’d be forced to that along with redoing marketing materials. There are costs for that.
“Part of the issue is if you have multiple states with multiple GMO-labeling laws. It’s possible a company could have to put different labels on their products according to the geographic location where they’re being sold. When looking at cost estimates that should be factored in.
“As I understand it, the companies using the new GMO labels are doing so to be in compliance with Vermont’s law. If another state mandated words different from Vermont, how would the company deal with that? Would they have to create a separate distribution channel
“Another part of the cost is more in the tracking of the ingredients and products. Companies may be required to alter the way they handle ingredients as they’re being prepared. Extra costs could come from tracking supplies, ingredients and distribution channels.
“The companies announcing they’ll do the GMO labeling want to control the process as much as they can. It seems the manufacturers are going to try and make labels that try to fit everywhere, not just Vermont.
"But it’s noteworthy that Vermont, a small state, is driving these companies to put out labels for the entire country.”
What about regional differences? The South doesn’t seem to have jumped on this like the West Coast and Northeast.
“I agree. The Pacific Coast and New England are where the labeling efforts have been strongest. A GMO-labeling ballot initiative in Colorado didn’t even come close to passing.”
What do you think is the likeliest resolution for this?
“With the recent statements from companies regarding labeling, it appears we’re moving towards wider adoption. It’ll be interesting to see what the consumer response is. Will we see consumers continue to buy the same products that once weren’t labeled? Will they see a GMO label and shift to another product?
“I’m very interested in seeing how that shakes out. If there’s no change in consumer behavior you could ask what the point of the labeling is.
“Also, how will manufacturers behave? Will we begin to see more non-GMO products on the shelf in an effort to capitalize on perceived consumer demand?
On the Ag Law conference…
“Last year, the conference was excellent, covered very interesting topics and I was happy to participate. I’m sure this year’s conference will be the same. The first morning session will cover a wide range of current developments in ag law.”