(Beyond Pesticides, March 24, 2016) This week, four major food manufacturing companies, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mars, and ConAgra, committed to labeling food containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, while exclaiming the safety of GE food. Each company released statements citing the new Vermont labeling law, set to take effect this summer. The four companies joined Campbell Soup Company, which announced its own label on GE ingredients in January. At the time, Agri-Pulse reported, “Campbell made clear that it still supported the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, but said that there is a need for national labeling standards that would preempt state standards.”
A summary of the companies’ releases are as follows:
Kellogg’s North America President, Paul Norman, insists upon the adoption of a “federal solution for the labeling of GMOs.” Until that happens, he says, “We will start labeling some of our products nationwide for the presence of GMOs beginning in mid-to-late April. We chose nationwide labeling because a special label for Vermont would be logistically unmanageable and even more costly for us and our consumers.” In addition to a label, Kellogg’s launched OpenForBreakfast.com, which invites consumers to ask questions and learn more about products that include GE ingredients. “At our core, Kellogg believes in transparency and that people should know what’s in their food and where it comes from,” says Paul Norman.
On its blog, Taste of General Mills, executive vice president and chief operating officer Jeff Harmening expressed the need for a national solution for GE labeling. He points to the Vermont state law deadline in the midst of a seemingly never-ending debate in Washington. In order to comply with that deadline, he says General Mills, “can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that”¦ 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.” Like Kellogg’s, General Mills has a platform for consumer Q&A, Ask General Mills. Included on that webpage is a link to a search engine that reveals the GE-status of each of their products alongside a disclaimer: “This technology is not new. Biotech seeds have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in food crops for more than 20 years.” According to Jeff Harmening, “For consumers who prefer products without GMO ingredients, we have terrific organic and non-GMO brands like Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen and LÃ„RABAR.”
In a discreet change to its current GMO page, Mars added the sentence, “To comply with [the Vermont] law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide.” It includes a link to U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s GE Plant website, which ensures the safety of GE-derived food products.
ConAgra released a statement on their website stating, “ConAgra Foods will begin adding labels to products nationwide by July 2016 to meet Vermont’s GMO labeling requirements. We stand behind the health and safety of all of our products, including those with genetically modified ingredients, and believe consumers should be informed as to what’s in their food. But addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies. With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever. That’s why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible.”
Generally, food manufacturers are resisting the “patchwork” mandatory state labeling laws that are slowly moving across the nation. They all insist upon a federal rule in order to create uniformity and prevent chaos for their packaging logistics. Earlier this month, Senators Jeff Merkley (OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation to require that consumer food packaging displays genetically engineered (GE) ingredient labeling. The legislation, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act (S.2621), presents an alternative to the primarily Republican-backed Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Bill (dubbed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act) that failed to garner cloture in last week’s Senate vote. While a stark improvement from the previous bill, advocates are critical of the preemption that the new legislation allows. The history of pesticide bans is filled with examples of state action preceding federal action, from DDT, chlordane, EDB, DBCP amd more.
Typically, states do not exceed federal standards unless there is a weakness in the public health or environmental protections. While uniformity is understood to facilitate interstate marketing of chemical and food products, states have historically advanced more restrictive policy on toxic chemical use and exposure and food when a deficiency in federal protections has been clearly identified. It is that state and local action that has provided an important check on federal inaction and ultimately influences the adoption of more protecitve federal policy. As a result, Beyond Pesticides has maintained that it is essential to uphold the basic principle that states and localities must not have their authority to adopt more restrictive standards preempted by the federal government. The role of the federal government is too establish a regulatory floor, not a ceiling.
Beyond Pesticides believes that consumers have a right to know whether the foods they buy contain GE ingredients, not only because of concerns over the safety of eating GE food, but also because of the direct and indirect effects of GE agriculture on the environment, wildlife, and human health. GE agriculture is associated with the increased use of herbicides —particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup— that crops are developed to tolerate. In light of findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a human carcinogen based on laboratory animal test data, consumers have even more cause for concern about the health risks that these products pose. See Beyond pesticides Genetic Engineering program page for more information on GE agriculture and alternatives to this toxic system of food production.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.