What’s next for GMO labeling?

By Charlyn Fargo

Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a voluntary labeling proposal for genetically modified ingredients. The rule would have established a national standard for labeling food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and would have preempted a patchwork approach of state laws mandating GMO labeling. The final vote was 12 votes short of the 60 Senate votes needed for passage of the bill.

Proponents of the bill say they are trying to find a pathway to block Vermont’s mandatory labeling law that will go into effect on July 1, 2016. Many farm groups supported the voluntary legislation.

Food manufacturers are expected to start the switch over to a new labeling system to comply with the Vermont labeling law soon. A recent Corn Refiners Association study indicates that the average American family will see food costs increase by $1,050 a year because of the mandatory labeling standard set forth at the state level.

U.S. corn farmers are disappointed that, despite the clear demonstration of support from nearly 800 groups, the Senate failed to move this reasonable legislation forward,” said National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling. “This legislation would have provided consumers with a greater amount of information in a consistent, clear manner. Farmers are committed to creating greater transparency in the food system, but we also need Congress to set clear, commonsense guidelines that are based in science and keep food affordable for American families.”

Based on our conversations with Senators and their staff members, 98 percent of the US Senate seems to agree this would be the right thing to do,” said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute on the group’s website. “Sadly, the question in this debate, and in so many others in the Senate, is how to get 60 Senators who agree on the need for the same policy approach to do what is needed to achieve the goal.”

Sarasin said that companies have expressed frustration with state GMO-labeling laws that are inconsistent.

The real loss is for our grocery customers who are accustomed to enjoying low prices and an abundant availability of products due to tremendous advances of U.S. agriculture and the historical standard in the US that requirements for food labeling be consistent and limited to issues related to health and safety. We know a patchwork system will drive up costs,” she said.

Some companies are moving ahead without the legislation. General Mills Inc. announced that it will start labeling its products for biotech ingredients as required by a Vermont law set to take effect this summer. The General Mills announcement followed a decision by Campbell Soup Co. in January.

Negotiations are ongoing on a compromise version of the legislation, but the Senate recently broke for its two-week Easter recess without a resolution to the issue.

We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that,” said Jeff Harmening, executive vice president and chief operation officer for U.S. retail at General Mills in a blog post announcing the company’s decision. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products.”

Harmening said there still must be a “national solution” to the labeling issue. He said the company also is providing information about its biotech ingredients on its website.

Shoppers should begin seeing the new General Mills labels over the next several weeks. But depending on the type of packaging, it could take several months for the new wording to appear.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which General Mills is a member, said that the company’s decision shows how “Vermont’s looming labeling mandate is a serious problem” for food companies and “should give urgency to the need” for congressional action.

Food companies are being forced to make decisions on how to comply and having to spend millions of dollars,” according to a GMA statement. “One small state’s law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country.”

Proponents of mandatory, on-package GMO labeling praised the General Mills announcement. “Nine out of 10 Americans want the right to know whether their food contains GMOs — just like consumers in 64 other nations,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group and director of the Just Label It coalition.

Like General Mills, we hope Congress will craft a national, mandatory GMO labeling solution and we welcome the opportunity to work with industry to find a solution that works for consumers and works for the food industry,” he said.

Look for this issue to continue to heat up.

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