Why Food Companies Want Voluntary GMO Labeling

While strolling down the supermarket aisle, you might find yourself faced with a variety of chips. Some are traditionally labeled with the brand and a logo. Others are labeled “GMO-free,” “May Contain GMO,” “No GMO Added” or “Organic.” What do these labels really mean, and which choice is right, or healthiest? There are many people who trumpet the dangers of GMOs, but just as many who say they’re nothing to fear. On top of that, it’s difficult to know if products are being correctly labelled.

Organizations in the food industry are now coming together to combat calls for mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients for their products amidst ballot initiatives in California, Washington, and other states demanding such a labeling process. These companies believe that this sort of labeling should be voluntary rather than mandatory for several reasons, and they are trying to pass their own legislation in Congress to settle the issue once and for all.

Those who pay attention to the news, may have heard that GMOs can have adverse health effects. But what is GMO? GMO means genetically modified organisms, and GMOs are essentially seeds that have been altered in a laboratory for a variety of reasons, such as the ability to resist pesticides better and to grow more crops. GMO ingredients are in 70 to 85 percent of what Americans consume, with corn and soybeans to everything made with their byproducts (including a great deal of processed foods) and more coming from genetically modified seeds.

What would this legislation really mean for the food industry? For consumers’ choices? Or for your health?

The Coalition For Safe And Affordable Food And Its Proposed Legislation

After calls for collaboration from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 29 food and agricultural organizations, including the American Beverage Association, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, and Biotechnology Industry Association, have joined together to form the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food.

The coalition formed to push legislation through Congress that would govern GMO practices and food labeling in the country. The most talked about, and perhaps most important tenet of this legislation, is the voluntary labeling for food companies who decide whether or not they will label their products as containing GMO ingredients rather than being mandated by the state.

Another part of the legislation requires that the FDA approve GMO food ingredients premarket, and gives it the authority to label any GMO products that raise safety concerns. Food companies have also moved to include GMO ingredients in an official definition of “natural” foods.

Also a key part of this federal legislation for food companies: this law would override any state labeling laws, whose ballot initiatives have grown both numerous and costly for the food industry to combat in recent years. These include labeling initiatives in California and Washington, both of which were narrowly defeated but still cost the industry tens of millions of dollars. These narrow wins for the industry were the final push for the forming of this coalition and the legislation it is touting to Congress.

The coalition and food biotechnology industries have a number of reasons to support the voluntary labeling legislation, but opponents bring their own opinions to the table.

Against Labeling: GMOS Not Scientifically Proven to Be Harmful

The FDA’s official opinion is that GMO foods do not differ from other foods “in any meaningful or material way,” nor do they present safety concerns that are different or greater than traditional plant-bred foods. The American Medical Association, the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization have also all agreed that no safety concerns have surfaced during their own research. The food industry points to these opinions as being the truth over other studies with conflicting results.

The industry believes that labeling products as such makes GMOS look harmful, when in its opinion, they are not. This perpetuates the image that GMO, or bioengineered food, is “frankenfood,” and the industry regards the opposition’s efforts to be nothing more than scare tactics and propaganda. Parties of the food industry also believe that it was this misinformation that caused such a stir during the California and Washington ballot initiatives.

GMO farmers and food companies want to get their own information and stories out to the public to help them understand the use of GMO technology based on the current body of research they cite and their own observations.

GMO Labeling Could Lead To Price Hikes for All Parties Involved

One primary concern of the food industry is that mandatory GMO labeling could cause price hikes for farmers, grocers and restaurateurs, and those additional costs would then trickle down to the consumer. Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, cited “independent economic studies” that she said predicted that an extra $400 per year would be charged to the average American family to compensate for these labeling requirements.

According to Ray Gaesser, president of the American Soybean Association, it costs farmers nearly 15 to 30 percent more to grow and handle “identity-preserved crops,” which means that conventionally grown crops cannot mingle—or in other words, be anywhere near—crops with GMO strains. Those costs would then presumably be passed on to the distributor, and in turn the consumer.

Mandatory Labeling Could Cause Confusion for Consumers

Many consumers do not understand what GMOs are, or whether or not they are bad for you (in part due to conflicting research). Having it labeled on the product itself, in the food industry’s opinion, could mean that this would cause consumer confusion over what products are better for them, both in terms of health and price.

Also, food companies argue that having 50 different state-led labeling initiatives would be impractical, costly and even more confusing for consumers. Patchwork legislation, in their opinion, would do nothing more than further complicate matters for food companies, consumers and farmers alike.

Organic Labeling Already In Place

The food industry also believes GMO labeling is a waste because organic labeling procedures are already in place, and a product labeled organic means that it does not contain GMO ingredients. Thereby, a consumer can assume that a product not labeled organic may indeed contain GMO ingredients and can then base his or her purchasing decision on that fact alone. Mandatory labeling specifically for GMO, to the traditional food industry, appears to be a waste of time, money and energy.

Merely A Ploy For The Organic Companies To Increase Their Own Market Share

The organic foods industry has boomed in recent years, in part due to the scare over GMO products. The food industry believes that this movement might be nothing but a ploy—based on allegedly false evidence—to prop up the organic foods industry as the better choice and drive people away from traditional foods, which in a lot of cases do contain GMO ingredients.

For Labeling: Consumers Deserve to Know What Is in Their Food

One of the main reasons opponents are against companies not labeling their GMO-containing foods is that they believe that consumers should be informed as to what is in the foods that they buy. Hiding these ingredients, which these opponents believe to be harmful, is incorrectly reassuring consumers that these products are OK for them, when in reality they may not be.

If consumers are informed about the ingredients contained in these foods and still choose to buy them, then that is their choice, and they are enacting their free will based on all of the information they need. Opponents of GMO are not trying to make people’s choices for them—they are trying to provide consumers with the information they need to make that choice. Misleading information is not ethical, and they believe that food companies are engaging in this unethical behavior just to continue making money off of consumers.

GMO Foods May Actually Be Harmful

While these companies claim that there is no evidence for GMOs causing health problems in humans, there are also no studies that have determined that GMO foods are safe for human consumption either. In actuality, no consensus exists in the scientific community on this topic, leaving it up for debate, a matter of based on research versus research.

The research on the opposing end of this debate is compelling. For example, large increases in cancer and birth defects in Argentina’s commercial farming areas have occurred since the introduction of GMO crops. Similarly, researchers have found a dramatic increase in cancer in the same strain of rats used in FDA drug safety tests. Another study reported an increase in severe stomach inflammation in pigs caused by GM feeds containing insecticidal toxins, which is a condition which would likely lead to cancer in humans.

Due to the use of GMOs, there has been a massive increase in herbicide use, which can be harmful to humans. This includes the chemical 2,4-D, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant used in Vietnam.

As it takes many years for diseases like cancer to appear, it can be more difficult to link GMO crops to increased health issues for humans at this time. But opponents of GMO use are convinced that GMOs are indeed the culprit, and that even just a little bit of these toxins build up over time to create life-threatening health consequences.

Many other countries already reject GMO foods. The European Union enhanced its GM food safety testing requirements due to consumer reactions and even withdrew investment from Monsanto and BANF, two major GMO seed producers. Japan, South Korea, Mexico, India, the Philippines, Peru and Bolivia are just a few of the many countries that ban GMO foods altogether. In Russia, scientists have also proposed a total ban of all GMO foods.

Voluntary Labeling Undermines The Labeling Process Altogether

In terms of this proposed bill’s voluntary policy, opponents believe that making the process voluntary would undermine the entire process altogether. Voluntary labeling would leave companies off the hook and not have them inform consumers about what they are really eating. If the process is voluntary, it is likely that a lesser portion of companies will sign up for labeling, which means that the whole point of having companies label their food would be negated.

Voluntary Labeling Will Confuse Consumers More Than Mandatory

While the traditional food industry believes that mandatory GMO labeling will confuse consumers, opponents believe that voluntary labeling will confuse consumers even more. This is because consumers who are going down the aisle and looking at products with and without GMO labels will start to believe that companies who opted out of labeling its GMO ingredients have provided a product that does not contain GMO—when indeed it does.

Unless all companies across the board are mandated to label for GMO ingredients, consumers will have a hard time discerning what does and does not contain GMO. Opponents’ bottom line is that the food industry is supposed to be providing consumers with more information, not less.

The GMA’s efforts to lobby members of Congress to introduce a bill with these measures has gone on since October at least, but they have not yet convinced anyone to sign on. Even if this coalition can sway members of Congress to sign on to the bill, it does not mean that the bill won’t be killed once it reaches the voting of the full Congress.

As for now, both sides are lobbying hard to encourage Congress and the public to feel one way or the other, and this battle has only just begun where legislation and labeling are concerned.

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