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Federal GMO label: Conspiracy for activists, science-based for industry

| April 11, 2014

Legislation introduced earlier this week by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) that would give the Food and Drug Administration sole authority for GMO labeling was met with harsh criticism from anti-GMO activists but supported strongly by the food industry. The bill, called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, seeks to establish “once and for all, a federal standard for labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients that would keep prices low, enhance consumer choice, and ensure that information that reaches consumers is accurate and does not mislead,” claimed Pompeo.

Various GMO labeling initiatives are being considered in more than thirty states. The bill seeks to preempt a “patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements” with a federal standard, according to Pompeo. It is “enormously difficult to operate a food system with this enormous variability among all these potential laws,” he said.

via Environmental Working Group
via Environmental Working Group

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) immediately dubbed Pompeo’s bill the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” or DARK act, noting that no company has volunteered to label GMOs present in their products even though the FDA allowed voluntary labeling in 2001. “If the DARK Act becomes law, a veil of secrecy will cloak ingredients, leaving consumers with no way to know what’s in their food,” said EWG’s Scott Faber.

Elizabeth Kucinich, policy director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), called the proposed legislation a “Trojan Horse of a bill” meant to “muddy Congressional waters and keep consumers in the dark.” Earlier this week, prior to Pompeo’s bill unveiling, CFS along with EWG and Just Label It met with more than 100 members of Congress in an apparent attempt to blunt support for Pompeo’s anticipated bill.

Kucinich echoed anti-GMO activists, claiming that support for mandatory labeling in the US is overwhelming:

The public wants GMO labeling. In fact, a staggering 93 percent of Americans polled say they want foods containing GMO ingredients to be labeled. So why is Monsanto getting its way so far? Because Monsanto and other big chemical and food corporations have spent many tens of millions of dollars to undermine consumers’ right to know.

But those claims are suspect: how a poll question is asked can highly influence its results. When consumers are simply given the choice between labeling GMOs or not, they do choose labeling in overwhelming numbers. But when the question is posed neutrally, support for GMOs appears to be shallow.

In one 2012 survey by the International Food Information Council, an industry group, consumers were asked if there was “any information not currently included on food labels that you would like to see on food labels.” Of the 24 percent that said yes, only 3 percent specified GMOs.

When participants in a 2013 study by researchers at Rutgers University were asked what additional information they would like to see on food labels, only 7 percent raised GMO labeling. The study also found that Americans are more concerned about labels for food that was produced using hormones or antibiotics, or whether it contains allergens, or if it was sourced in America than whether it contained GMOs. Despite the loud rhetoric by anti-GMO activists, and intense media attention, the issue of GMOs does not move consumers very much.

Related article:  Was activist scientist Jonathan Lundgren, neonicotinoid critic, silenced by USDA?

Kucinich also claimed that the impact of mandatory labeling would be minimal, citing a food industry leader who told her “labeling requires no change to product ingredients, agricultural practices, or price.” She also suggests that if the food companies are “fearful of labeling for any reason, they would only need to put out the message that in the next five years they were going GMO free and the entire commodity landscape would change, their stocks would likely go up and their toxic liability be vastly reduced.” The potential costs of GMO labeling are hotly debated, although independent estimates and many in the food industry suggest that labeling will raise costs throughout the supply chain and inevitably raise food prices.

Industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association welcomed the bill. President of the American Soybean Association Ray Gaesser called it “a commonsense, science-based approach to an issue we realize is close to the hearts and minds of so many consumers.” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that “Farm Bureau looks forward to a national-level discussion that will affirm FDA’s role in assuring consumers about GMO safety and reduce the confusion that would result from a patchwork of state labeling initiatives.”

At the heart of this debate is GMO safety, as Bryan Walsh points out in Time, but anti-GMO activists conspicuously did not raise the issue. There is broad consensus on GMO safety among numerous reputable scientific organizations, many of whom have also spoken out against mandatory labeling in favor of voluntary labeling.

Instead, anti-GMO criticism of Pompeo’s bill falls largely on the fact that agri-giants and Big Food lobbies have already dropped millions to fight GMO labeling. They emphasized that Pompeo’s main campaign donor is Koch Industries, a frequent target of Democrats and left-wing groups. A release from the Environmental Working Group says:

The top individual contributor to Pompeo’s campaign coffers has been Koch Industries Inc., at $238,900. The private company is run by billionaire brothers Charles and David H. Koch, who are known for their extensive support of conservative causes.

Because of the sense of conspiracy that the anti-GMO activists are playing up, Walsh predicts that Pompeo’s bill, commonsense and science-based or not, will make public GMO acceptance even less likely. “It’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have,” Walsh writes. “By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is.”

 

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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