Opinion

Big Food's arrogant move in the GMO labeling wars

The food lobby wants a voluntary federal approach to GMO labeling,” but we should let the states have their way, for now

January 17, 2014 10:00AM ET
A label on a bag of popcorn indicates it is a food product free of genetically modified organisms. Several states have in recent years considered GMO labeling legislation, but the food lobby would prefer a weak, voluntary federal standard.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Those advocating for improvements to our broken food system have, of late, had little to crow about. However, in recent years, a growing movement to label foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has begun showing real promise. While the food industry continues to make unsubstantiated and deceptive claims that GMO labels would be confusing or increase food costs, polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans favor GMO labeling. And the states are listening. At least 20 states have proposed legislation requiring that genetically engineered foods be labeled.

Last year Connecticut overcame industry lobbying and became the first state in the nation to enact such a law, and on Jan. 9, Maine’s governor signed that state’s GMO-labeling bill into law. Unfortunately, after some legislative tussling, both measures have significant so-called trigger clauses that require other states to enact similar policies before the laws can take effect.

Meanwhile, high-profile, close-margin voter-initiative losses in California in 2012 and Washington state last year raised much awareness and emboldened similar efforts to move propositions forward in Oregon and Colorado this year. Legislatures in several states — including Vermont, New Hampshire and New York — are also currently weighing GMO labeling bills.

This momentum is becoming a very expensive headache for the biotechnology and processed-food industries. Opposing the two ballot initiatives in California and Washington cost corporations more than $67 million. Never mind how in the Washington battle, food companies tried to illegally launder their campaign donations through their lobbying group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and got caught in the act. (The case has yet to go to trial, but the GMA has filed a countersuit claiming the law is invalid.)

Now that noble organization, which represents such food-industry giants as PepsiCo and Kraft, has a new trick up its sleeve: a so-called federal solution. Admittedly, the food industry ideally should not have to follow 50 states’ different laws dictating how products should be labeled. But the GMA’s way out of this conundrum is to call for a voluntary scheme that would at the same time wipe out the ability of states to require labeling — a legal concept known as pre-emption. In other words, the industry’s federal solution would make it illegal for states to pass laws requiring GMO labeling, and at the national level, there will still be no mandatory law.

More states must flex their political muscle to remind federal leaders that Americans want transparency about the food they eat.

The GMA’s complete scheme to stop the progress of labeling laws in the states (and the hole in their pockets) was recently revealed in an internal document made public by Politico. Included on the lobbyists’ audacious wish list for Congress and the Food and Drug Administration was a self-certifying “mandatory premarket notification” scheme, in which companies would drop a note to the FDA informing it of any new GMO products to be released for public consumption; if the FDA does not object within 90 days, then food companies could claim the product is government approved. This is similar to Facebook’s claim that users have agreed to its data-collection policy simply by signing up. The arrangement is also similar to the current “generally recognized as safe” self-certification process, in which the FDA allows food makers to claim that new food additives are safe, without government confirmation — an industry-friendly system that has been sharply criticized.

If the GMA were to get its way, not only would food companies be able to make claims about the “absence of bioengineered ingredients” in its products (something that companies are already doing through third-party certifiers such as the Non-GMO Project), but also the FDA would develop corporate-friendly regulations on GMO-free claims that would allow a company to call products from cows fed genetically modified grains GMO-free.

Also on the industry’s shopping list: an FDA-developed definition for the “natural” label on foods. This issue has become so contentious that it has already led to numerous legal battles. Recently the FDA explicitly declined a court request to decide if food companies can use the natural label on products containing GMOs. (Apparently it is not an agency priority.) In an effort to curtail further litigation, lobbyists want the FDA to allow the industry to engage in this deception. But how can a technology novel enough to get patent protection also be natural?

Details aside, the true agenda behind this ambitious proposal is to put an end to the copious amounts of negative publicity that food makers have been enduring as Americans increasingly wake up to what they are eating. (One of the lobbyists’ ideas was that GMOs be renamed “bioengineered foods,” presumably because that phrase polls better among shoppers.) Especially harmful to Big Food’s reputation has been the revelation that many beloved organic- and natural-food brands are, in fact, owned by massive food conglomerates that are funding anti-GMO-labeling campaigns. For example, General Mills took a lot of heat when consumers of its organic Cascadian Farms brand realized the parent company was funding the opposition during the California initiative. Similarly, Coca-Cola is the target of a consumer boycott of the company’s healthier brands such as Honest Tea and Odwalla over its continued opposition to GMO labeling.

While a federal solution may be necessary, the GMA proposal is a far cry from what consumers are demanding and only shows the food industry’s desperation. If the industry gets its way, shoppers will remain in the dark about which foods contain GMOs. Meanwhile, the state-level policy efforts should continue to move forward. More states must flex their political muscle to remind federal leaders that Americans want transparency about the food they eat. Now that the junk-food lobby’s true agenda has been revealed, federal representatives are on notice: Your constituents will be holding you accountable to ensure that this democracy-killing power grab does not come to fruition.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, president of Eat Drink Politics, and author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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