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]