The federal requirement to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients is generating turmoil in the marketplace.
To review, a very large majority of U.S. consumers demanded labeling of GE foods, and the food industry spent a reported $400 million to defeat related legislation. The debate, which continued for over five years, resulted in late July of 2016 in the adoption of “compromise” legislation that strongly favored the food industry’s position.
The central issue in the debate has been a policy of 1992 under which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the health and nutrient values of genetically engineered foods do not differ from “conventional” foods and therefore do not warrant labeling.
Labeling advocates have insisted that GE foods have not been studied sufficiently by independent researchers, and federal policy ignores the environmental and economic impacts of such foods. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supported labeling by pointing to consumers’ strong interest in knowing when foods contain GE ingredients.
Consumer groups are still a bit stunned by the adoption of what has been called “the weakest labeling law imaginable.” They continue the struggle, but have abandoned the political arena and are moving future battles to the marketplace.
The simplest strategy is buy only foods labeled as organic, under long-standing federal standards. Organic foods, by definition, do not contain GE ingredients.
The flipside of this strategy involves boycotting foods that are not labeled “organic” or “non-GE.”
A related strategy includes rejecting foods labeled as “natural.” Some consumers regard “natural” and “organic” as equivalent but current FDA practice states that “natural” foods do not include artificial ingredients. The FDA is being pressured to define “natural” in a way that includes foods with GE ingredients. We’ll see how that goes!
Another strategy is take legal action against companies that label foods as “organic” when they in fact contain GE ingredients. To date, such initiatives appear to be effective.
One group has mounted a campaign to label selected conventional foods with the “Non-GMO Project Verified Butterfly.” Such labels are becoming more used, reportedly.
One thoughtful observer, food writer Mark Bittman, has suggested that the GE labeling “cloud” has a silver lining, because the new labeling law opens the door to a new era of transparency about food products. He notes that the new law, however flawed, calls for labeling a food’s production process in addition to labeling its health and nutrient values.
Bittman lists the new categories of information that consumers should be told about a food product’s ingredients: Where are they from? Were they dosed with pesticides or other synthetic chemicals? How much water was used to grow them? Did farm workers receive fair pay and treatment? Were farming practices friendly to the environment? For food products from animals: Were the animals treated with antibiotics? Were the animals treated humanely?
Such labeling requirements might be required on a state-by-state basis, which is still permissible under federal law. State-level responses to consumer interests in such areas could force the adoption of overdue national standards regarding food production processes. GE labeling might be only the beginning of a much-needed “transparency revolution.”
Read Mark Bittman’s views here.
For more about the Non-GMO Project’s Butterfly, click on the image: