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“Truth” in GE Labeling

The  legislative battle royal over the labeling of foods – whether for man or animal – containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients is getting sillier.  That’s a statement one would have been hard-pressed to make just a week ago.  I’ve got clients in this fight, so trust me I know silly when I see it.

The issue is this:  While everyone, including those demand labeling, pays lip service to the safety of biotech ingredients, the mountains of science and experience which underpin that reality and a need to avoid demonizing the technology lest we lose its benefits, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and minions believe all foods should be labeled if they contain a GE ingredient.

The reality is this:  Given almost 95% of U.S. corn and soybean production, 95% of sugar beet production, 90% of the canola crop and a growing percentage of other plant ingredients benefit from genetic modification, then, based upon the percentage use of these plant ingredients in various foods, over 87% of all food labels would carry a GE moniker under the EWG plan.  Given the percentage of consumers routinely reading food labels has trended downward for the last 20 years because consumers labels confusing and/or difficult to read – in 2014, less than 43% read labels “a great deal” or a “fair amount” according to surveys – the EWG demand is the labeling equivalent of “white noise” with little or no benefit to consumers.

The classic argument for GE labeling is “the consumer has a right to know” what’s in his/her food, or if you’re of the more emotive camp, “what they’re feeding their children.”  By that logic, every single ingredient, its detailed production process, where it was grown, by whom and when, should be on a food label because all of these fascinating bits of information are part of “what’s in my/my kids’ food.”  If you subscribe to that argument, then get ready for multi-page, fold-out labels on the stuff you buy.

Complicating this philosophical debate are state governments deciding foods should be labeled for the presence of GE ingredients, at least within their borders.  The most notable is a Vermont labeling law which goes into effect July 1.  The Vermont law is complex and contradictory – it exempts almost as many foods as it labels, and it should come as no surprise that dairy – Vermont’s biggest ag product – is exempt from this “consumer right to know” protection.  Food companies selling products in Vermont will have to meet the letter of the law or decide to abandon Vermont as a market.  The cost of segregating product and distribution, reprinting labels, etc., makes abandoning Vermont consumers pretty attractive to some companies, I’m sure, if only to teach state lawmakers a lesson.

Now imagine 50 different state labeling laws; enough said when it comes to the nightmare of marketing and distributing foods, not to mention the added cost tacked on to each product price to be paid by the enlightened consumer.

The House approved a bill last summer with a lopsided bipartisan vote to preempt the states, making USDA and FDA the joint arbiters of how foods must be labeled.  USDA is also instructed to develop a program by which companies which want to label or the presence or absence of GE ingredients can do so.

Senate labeling champions on both sides of the question, while saying publicly the issue isn’t political, can’t seem to get over the politics of labeling in an election year.

Next week the Senate will debate “mandatory disclosure” of GE ingredient information, a proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts (R, KS), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to preempt state laws and require companies to provide consumers a means to find out about ingredients if they truly want to know.   Roberts, who started out proposing a voluntary system, would give companies a menu of options on how to inform consumers, including quick review (QR) codes that can be scanned by smartphones, website addresses, 1-800 numbers, and so forth, with authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to come up with other options.  However, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) says that menu is too long.  She wants printed on or near the ingredient list either a QR code or a “symbol” indicating the product contains GE ingredients – which smells a lot like mandatory GE labeling.  It should a surprise no one that EWG is working its coalition fanny off to undermine any confidence in the utility of QR codes.

For over a month Roberts and Stabenow have discussed this issue, and as recently as this week they’ve “agreed to disagree.”  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is in the Roberts’ camp, and warns anyone who’ll listen that to go beyond the Roberts approach is to risk demonizing the technology and its benefits here and abroad.  Some of Roberts’ ag committee Democrats are warming to his way of thinking, particularly since the Administration is on board.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D, OR) wants mandatory labeling of GE ingredients – it was his idea to tack on the “symbol” indicator – and he’ll try to amend the Robert’s approach on the Senate floor. Then you’ve got Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA) who wants to label anything that moves, with staunch support from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT).

Nothing political in this debate.

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