UPDATE: This column was recognized in the 2017 Azbee Awards for excellence by the American Society of Business Press Editors.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Big Business in the United States is against regulation. Except when a law protects its own interests. Case in point: food processors and ingredient labeling.
Seed companies, food processors, grocery retailers and their lobbies have spent millions of dollars in Washington influencing lawmakers about why individual states should not be allowed to write their own laws governing how genetically modified organisms should be labeled on food and beverage packages. Instead, they want one national law ruling the labeling of GMOs. Without question, they have very good reasons for promoting that point of view.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill supported by the food industry, but it died in the Senate in March. So now it’s back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards July 1 when Vermont’s GMO labeling law goes into effect. If you want to sell your foods and beverages in the Green Mountain state, you need to label the presence of genetically engineered ingredients. And if you claim that your foods are GMO-free, then you better have the appropriate documentation on file.
GMOs in sugar, corn syrup, grains
At first glance it might seem as if the Vermont law does not affect dairy processors because milk is exempt. Yet plenty of dairy foods and beverages are sweetened by sugar beets or corn syrup, which probably are GMOs. Inclusions added to yogurts and ice creams might be made with genetically engineered grains.
I understand why food companies and their lobbyists favor a national labeling law and oppose 50 state laws. I would hate to be in charge of a dairy processor’s supply chain and logistics operations. Imagine trying to monitor where, when and how distributors are putting packages of my foods into a retail marketplace where 50 separate state laws mandate how to label products containing GMOs.
Instead of waiting for Congress to act, you could follow the lead of two big food companies. Campbell Soup Co. in January made available on its website a list of its foods using ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms. General Mills followed suit in March. It should be noted that both food processors support a national labeling law, but they weren’t holding their breath on congressional action mandating such labeling.
Both food processors are transparent about their use (or not) of genetically engineered ingredients. They offer consumers conventional foods and organic options. (Organic foods do not contain GMOs.) Thus, they give consumers choice.
How smart is the public?
Are consumers sufficiently educated about GMOs and modern-day agricultural practices? Proponents of GMO labeling say they are. Big Food and its allies, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, tend to argue that GMO labeling scares and confuses consumers.
Vilsack is worried that consumers would get the wrong idea about the safety of GMO ingredients. He told the Chicago Tribune in March that “there are very valid reasons for consumers to have information. I think there are also concerns that if the information is conveyed in a particular way it sends the wrong message about the safety of the product. Because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that GMO food is unsafe to consume. You may not agree with the process. You may have disagreements about the science in terms of what’s better for the land and so forth. But at the end of the day, it’s not about food safety.”
Those in favor of mandatory GMO labeling surely will disagree with Vilsack about his view on food safety. Others, Like Norbert Brauer, say the issue is simply about transparency. After the Senate vote, Illinois Farmers Union President Brauer said, “GMO labeling in itself is not an indicator of the good or evil of GMOs. It is simply giving Americans the same rights as consumers in Russia, China and more than 60 other nations that require mandatory GMO labeling. It is puzzling that the biotech companies spend millions of dollars to deny consumers the right to know whether or not the food they eat contains the products they have developed.”
There’s more than just labeling
As it turns out, consumers want to know way more about food than its caloric, fat, sodium and sugar content. “Food choices are increasingly based on consumer values beyond nutrition,” notes the Dairy Council of California in its recent trends report (summarized on page 18 of this issue). “Personal values about food as it relates to a higher cause — such as animal welfare, feeding the world and environmental concerns — are increasingly driving food choices. Many consumers believe that what they eat is a reflection of who they are. For example, someone may choose to eat only cage-free eggs, organic milk and grass-fed beef due to concerns about how animals are treated on the farm.”
The best direction for food processors (any business, for that matter) is to be transparent. Label the ingredients you use. Go ahead and educate consumers about agricultural production practices, food processing and nutrition if you want to. But keep this in mind about labeling: It’s not about what you want. It’s about those who pick your brand out of the dairy case, take it home, serve it to their families and return to the store to buy it again and again. It’s about the consumer.