Food Industry Volunteers To Self-Regulate GMO Labeling By Doing It If They Feel Like It

Do you have any idea if the ingredients in that sandwich you just made for lunch were genetically modified? Probably not: there’s no federal rule requiring labeling of GMO ingredients one way or the other. Now, a group of food industry organizations is calling on Congress to take action about GMO labeling… but the request isn’t quite what it seems.

NPR reports that a new coalition of nearly 30 organizations representing farmers, grocers, seed companies, and other food producers has banded together to advocate for action. The Coalition for Safe Affordable Foods, as the organization is known, released a statement saying that the current patchwork of non-regulations is confusing to consumers, and asked Congress to act.

The caveat? That call for consistency is actually a call for Congress to avoid requiring labeling at all. The Coalition’s goals, from their own website, are (emphasis added):

  • Eliminate Confusion: Remove the confusion and uncertainty of a 50 state patchwork of GMO safety and labeling laws and affirm the FDA as the nation’s authority for the use and labeling of genetically modified food ingredients.
  • Advance Food Safety: Require the FDA to conduct a safety review of all new GMO traits before they are introduced into commerce. FDA will be empowered to mandate the labeling of GMO food ingredients if the agency determines there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with an ingredient derived from a GMO.
  • Inform Consumers: The FDA will establish federal standards for companies that want to voluntarily label their product for the absence-of or presence-of GMO food ingredients so that consumers clearly understand their choices in the marketplace.
  • Provide Consistency: The FDA will define the term “natural” for its use on food and beverage products so that food and beverage companies and consumers have a consistent legal framework that will guide food labels and inform consumer choice.

That’s a fun piece of very careful wording: the industries want the FDA to create guidelines for labeling that they can opt out of using whenever they want to.

The question at hand isn’t even one of whether or not genetically modified foods should be on store shelves. Rather, it’s simply one of information: since food manufacturers are not currently required to indicate the presence or absence of genetically modified ingredients on their package labels, consumers have no means to make their own informed decisions about what they buy and eat.

Plenty of industries use voluntary self-regulation in order to avoid becoming subject to federal rules. MPAA film ratings, for example, are a voluntary, not legally binding system that Hollywood chooses to use. But voluntary rating is only effective–if it’s ever effective–when it’s consistently applied across an industry with as much diligence as a legally mandated rule would be.

Of course, the Coalition has a point that a patchwork of laws varying from state to state can be confusing for the consumer. A federal labeling requirement could fix that problem right away, creating the same standards nationwide.

So where do the feds stand on GMO labeling? Back in December, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) urged the Obama administration to require labeling of GMO ingredients, but there’s been no major action since then.

The Coalition doesn’t just want Congress not to mandate a national labeling law, though. As NPR points out, they want Congress specifically to block states from passing labeling laws of their own, as a leaked draft bill (PDF) from January revealed.

States have been meeting with mixed results in advancing their own labeling requirements. GMO labeling bills failed to pass in California and Washington state in recent years. Maine and Connecticut do have laws requiring GMO foods and ingredients to be labeled, but those pieces of legislation only go into effect if other states also pass similar laws.

So the Coalition is definitely at least half-right: the set of state laws regulating labeling is a confusing mess that doesn’t really help any consumers, and that could indeed cost businesses far more money than it needs to. They are also right that it’s a good idea to “affirm the FDA as the nation’s authority for the use and labeling” of GMO foods.

But affirming the FDA’s authority by having them not exert it? Businesses looking to save a few bucks might favor that move, but it doesn’t get consumers trying to make informed decisions anywhere.

Food Industry Groups Say They’ll Label GMOs, On Their Terms [NPR]

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  1. wsuschmitt says:

    I’m a food scientist that works in the dairy industry. It is my opinion that GMO products are safe.
    My friends have come to me to try and understand a bit more of why they’re hearing about GMOs and what I’m seeing is that there are a lot of half-truths out there about GMOs and how the human body works.

    Some friends were scared that the DNA from a GMO would re-write their own DNA when they ingested the food. That’s just not true. If it was, then even non-GMO foods would re-write their DNA, because non-GMO foods contain DNA too. The body doesn’t just take up full genetic code. If it did, I’d be full of fruit, vegetable, and meat genes.

    Some friends were scared that a poisonous protein was put into certain plants. Caterpillars that eat crops eat the protein and are killed, without pesticides. Just because a protein is dangerous to an insect or an animals doesn’t necessarily mean it is dangerous to humans. If that were true, I shouldn’t be eating chocolate because that is poisonous to dogs.

    I feel that the GMO movement may be a sign of a bigger problem: Big Corporations. Big Corporations have had a negative perception, no matter the industry. Big Corporation has made a GMO… therefore GMO must be bad because Big Corporations are faceless and can get away with bad things because they either pay a fine or pay off a Congressperson. In most cases in which I’ve talked to people at GMOs, most end with “how can I trust a Big Corporation to do what is right and not harm me?” That’s fair.

    The Government is supposed to protect you from Big Corporations and making sure that they don’t harm you. Food safety is a HUGE service that the Federal Government does for the public. Centralized safety systems SHOULD be in the hands of the Government. When food affects your health, the government should and has stepped in to make sure that you are an educated person about what you eat. Trans fats have been found to be harmful to you… so the Nutrition Facts panel was modified to make sure you can monitor your Trans fat intake. People may be allergic to certain types of food, so ingredient statements are regulated to make sure that any potential allergens are marked clearly for those that could suffer from those allergens. I am an advocate for the Government telling me how to label a food so that when my friends and family eat or drink the foods and beverages that I come up with, they do so because the food is safe for them, and they are educated about the possible dangers (e.g. sugar content for my diabetic friends, shellfish content for my friends with shellfish allergies) of the food.

    GMOs are not unsafe. There are over 2000 independent studies done on GMOs and food (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2013/10/14/2000-reasons-why-gmos-are-safe-to-eat-and-environmentally-sustainable/ ). I encourage you to read the article and dig a bit deeper for yourself. Google “Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research 2001-2011” and see for yourself.
    As I said earlier, the Federal Government should be involved in food safety related issues. Science says GMO products have been safe. I don’t think Federal Government should be mandating any type of labeling of GMOs.

    If you, as a consumer want to know, then ask the corporation directly! Facebook, Twitter, phone calls and emails are GREAT ways to find out more about your food. I’m in charge of helping to answer questions for our consumers. I’m not in charge of changing minds, and I’m not going to try and change people’s opinions. I just ask that people look at BOTH sides of the story and be informed on the subject… don’t just seek out things that will strengthen your opinion. Take a look at the sources of the facts and ask if they have an agenda for putting out those facts.

    Don’t be scared… be educated.

    • SingleMaltGeek says:

      Wow, thanks for that post, @wsuschmitt. I’m going to have to go back and re-read it and follow up on the references for a while to completely absorb it. But your last line really got me: “Don’t be scared… be educated.”

      That seems to be the last thing Monsanto wants. The GMO industry is fighting disclosure requirements tooth and nail, and seems to have zero interest in consumer education or publicly addressing concerns about GMOs.

      THAT is why I don’t trust GMOs in particular. Like nuclear energy, I think it has incredible promise to reshape the whole concept of scarcity in its industry, but it also has the potential for great harm, and it must be very carefully regulated.

    • PhillyDom says:

      I don’t think Federal Government should be mandating any type of labeling of GMOs.

      Don’t be scared… be educated.

      So you want people to be educated, but you don’t want to give them the information they need to be educated.

      You have got to be joking when you say “ask the corporation directly.” The same corporations that don’t want to put the information on the labels are willingly going to give it to me if I contact them? Yeah, right. Besides, I regularly buy scores if not hundreds of different food products. Where am I supposed to find the time to contact all those companies?

      Your attitude is exactly why people don’t trust the manufacturers on GMOs. The corporations are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep this information off the labels, which justifies people wondering what they have to hide if GMOs are so safe.

      Give the consumers the information and let them decide. This is a matter of the right to make decisions for oneself, not safety. If the people decide – rightly or wrongly – that they don’t want GMO products, it doesn’t matter what your or the companies’ opinions are on their safety. The corporations will have a choice to make: continue furiously fighting the consumer’s right to make her own choices, or give consumers what they want.

      That’s why companies are in business after all – to give consumers what the consumer wants, not what the companies think they should get.