GMO Labeling Initiatives: Forging a Path to Full Consumer Transparency
By Analiese Paik
For years, Americans have demanded that foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be clearly labeled so we can make an informed decision about whether to eat them. Currently, making that choice is complicated, if not overwhelming, because most processed foods contain GMOs. Cookies, cakes, crackers, breads and other baked goods, granola bars, cereals, candy, ice cream, and frozen prepared meals often contain high fructose corn syrup from genetically modified (GM) corn, sugar from GM sugar beets, and canola, cottonseed and soybean oil from GM canola, cotton and soy.
The situation grows stickier when we factor in the animals fed GM corn and soy, including farm-raised fish, and cows injected with GM hormones to boost milk production. Reading a label won’t help much, because the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to yield to pressure to change its outdated GMO labeling policy that treats GMOs as if they were the same as their conventional counterparts. I’ve never understood how GM crops, which are created by biotechnology companies to withstand the application of herbicides and/or produce their own pesticides (and subsequently awarded patents for these novel features), could be considered “substantially equivalent” to crops which can’t perform such tricks. GM crops acquire these traits when DNA from other species – bacteria, viruses, insects, other animals – is introduced into their genetic makeup, a wholly unnatural act which produces a transgenic organism.
Even the national Just Label It campaign’s million plus signatures on a GMO labeling petition couldn’t persuade the FDA to budge. Suddenly, fighting for transparency at the state level seemed like a viable option. Connecticut and Vermont were among the states who decided to heed consumer demand for GMO labeling by introducing bills last year, but they found themselves squarely in the sights of biotech companies ready to launch protracted and expensive legal battles challenging the constitutionality of any laws that passed. Neither state’s initiative had any chance of passing once their respective governors said they had no appetite for a law suit.
In November 2012, California’s Proposition 37 made national headlines as advocates pulled out all the stops to influence residents to vote for GMO labeling. Hollywood actors and celebrity chefs, including chef, restaurateur, and advocate Alice Waters, publicly came out in favor of the initiative and further amplified the message to new audiences. When the votes were tallied, it became clear that nothing could save the ballot initiative from $46 million worth of ‘No on 37’ ads funded by biotech companies and giant food businesses including Monsanto, DuPont, Nestle and PepsiCo. The stakes were just too high in California due to its enormous size and history as a trendsetter for the rest of the country, and Big Food could not afford to lose. As California goes, so goes the rest of the country.
Rather than dismantle the pro-labeling movement, the setback in California galvanized it and unleashed a protest in the form of a boycott of organic and “natural” brands owned by companies that helped kill the California ballot initiative. These companies –manufacturers of Green& Black, Muir Glen, Horizon, and Gardenburger, to name a few – began to lose their appetite for funding opposition to state GMO labeling bills when the backlash hit them right in the pocketbook. The so-called Traitor Boycott went viral on social media, further raising national consumer awareness about unlabeled GMOs and triggering new grassroots advocacy that tipped other states into taking action.
In 2013, many more states, including Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, New Mexico and Washington, have been working to pass GMO labeling bills. Vermont became the first state to achieve partial victory when the House of Representatives voted 99-to-42 in favor of H-112 on May 10. This comprehensive labeling bill will go before the Vermont Senate in January, and then to the governor’s desk for a vote before it can become law. The Connecticut General Assembly has introduced two GMO labeling bills during the 2013 session – House Bill No. 6527 from the Children’s Committee that would mandate the labeling of GMOs in infant formula and baby food and House Bill No. 6519 from the Public Health Committee that would require that all foods containing GMOs be labeled. Both need and deserve your attention, so please send your state representative and senator a letter of support today.
In March, just as advocates were gearing up across the country to muster support for state bills, the movement took an unexpected turn. Whole Foods Market shocked the nation by announcing a pledge to give consumers what they want and deserve – the right to know whether the foods we purchase in their stores contain GMOs. “We’re responding to our customers, who have consistently asked us for GMO labeling and we are doing so by focusing on where we have control: in our own stores,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. However unexpected this victory, it makes complete sense that our nation’s first organic grocery chain would be the one to stick their necks out, knowing full well they’d be upsetting the proverbial apple cart of suppliers, competitors, and biotech seed companies. Knowing the transition will take years, Whole Foods Market calculated 2018 as the deadline for all products sold in their U.S and Canadian stores to be labeled to reflect whether they contain GMOs. That includes animal products from livestock fed GMOs according to a PR executive in Whole Foods Market’s corporate offices.
Logic dictates that food manufacturers will reformulate their products to be GMO-free rather that slap a “Contains Genetically Engineered Ingredients” sticker on them, a practice they’ve used for years in countries with labeling laws. Consumer backlash against “natural” brands (a meaningless term) that use GMOs has been so intense that brands like Kashi and Ben & Jerry’s have already pledged to remove GMOs from their U.S. products. Ben & Jerry’s commitment to consumer transparency is so strong that it publishes on its website which products are currently GMO-free and which will be so by their year-end deadline. Whole Foods Market’s pledge to label products containing GMOs and the growing number of companies reformulating and labeling their products as Non-GMO are powerful evidence of the amazing power of the consumer. As more Americans learn about GMOs and how they’ve never been tested for safety in animals, humans or the environment, the opposition to GMOs will reach critical mass and force more food manufacturers to produce Non-GMO products.
Perhaps other supermarkets will follow Whole Foods Market’s pro-consumer lead and give Americans, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, the transparency that 62 other countries, including Japan, Australia, China, Russia and all EU member countries, already enjoy. The outlook for other food retailers adopting similar GMO labeling standards is good, especially after Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and a number of regional supermarkets recently announced their refusal to carry genetically engineered salmon, or any other genetically engineered seafood, if they are allowed on the market. Salmon is the first genetically engineered animal destined for human consumption and consumer opposition to its approval by the FDA is strong. The Friends of the Earth’s massive Campaign for GE-Free Seafood, which Whole Foods and Trader’s Joes pledged to support, has ensured that genetically engineered seafood will find no shelf space in at least 2,000 grocery stores. Chalk another one up for the consumer.
Analiese Paik is a local-sustainable food advocate who frequently writes and speaks on the topic of GMOs. Paik is the founder and editor of the Fairfield Green Food Guide, an award-winning website that informs consumers about local and sustainable food resources, news and events. She is a board member of Slow Food Metro North, worked as a grassroots community organizer to lobby for a GMO labeling bill in CT, and continues to advocate for the labeling of genetically engineered foods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.