Let us decide

It was an email, sent by a student from Oquawka, which brought into focus an on-going issue that could affect Illinois food consumers.  Oquawka, by the way, is the home of the first monument to an elephant in Illinois, and, perhaps, the United States.  Taylorville and Showman’s Rest, in Forest Park, also have elephant monuments.

The student, recalling that I like to read labels on the food I purchase, alerted me to a label she recently saw.  The label, on imported soymilk, advertised it contained no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).  The fact the company, Singapore-based Yeo’s, provided more information than the law requires about what the product did, and did not, contain was interesting.  Clearly, this foreign company sees a potential market opportunity to advertise its soymilk is made from all non-GMO products. Yeo’s looked at that as a way to give consumers a choice – chose soymilk that says nothing about GMO ingredients or choose Yeo’s soymilk that does.  Both Yeo’s and General Mills see a non-GMO product marketing opportunity, Yeo’s with it soymilk and General Mills with its GMO free Cheerios.  Despite businesses moving to fill a GMO information gap, some state governments are clamoring they must mandate GMO food labeling.  In November, residents of Colorado and Oregon will vote whether or not to force businesses to advertise the presence, or absence, of GMO ingredients in foods.  Yeo’s and General Mills see a market opportunity that some state legislatures can’t – business will respond to what consumers want, without governmental decrees.

Closer to home, there are two bills that have been introduced in Illinois’ legislative bodies, one by Senator David Koehler from Peoria and the other by Representative Deborah Mell from Chicago.  Both of the bills wish to legislate that consumers must be informed if there are “genetically engineered” products in a food product sold in Illinois. I could provide details of the legislation, but when the legislative bodies in Springfield debate proposed laws that define “enzymes” or classify “chewing gum” as a food, I strongly doubt these pieces of legislation would end up helping consumers.

Given a choice, consumers will decide what they wish to purchase.  Today they have a choice, as the non-GMO labeling on Yeo’s soymilk indicates. And consumers may choose not to buy GMO free Cheerios, although the cereal is clearly labeled as such.  Consumers like choice – which always makes legislators nervous because the consumer may not make the choice the legislators ‘know’ is the correct choice.

The upcoming votes in Colorado and Oregon open up an interesting array of questions – are products that currently proclaim they are GMO free not to be trusted without legislation?  Alternatively, if a product does contain GMO ingredients, might that be a good business decision in order to give those consumers who say “So what?” a choice?  At least the organic purple and gold popcorn grown on Western Illinois University’s Allison Organic Farm will not be affected if there is mandatory labeling in Illinois because it is an organic product the legislation exempts from labeling requirements.

Professor Bailey formerly was the Chief Economist for the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition.  He also has served as Deputy-Under Secretary of Agriculture.

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