WASHINGTON — The federal government and a number of states are on a collision course over labels for genetically engineered food.
A bill introduced in the U.S. House earlier this month would ban states from passing food labeling laws. One that the Vermont Senate passed last week would require labels for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, as two other states have already done.
As a long-simmering battle escalates over if and how food companies should tell customers about genetically modified organisms, state-by-state efforts to force more detailed labeling are running into a food industry campaign for national standards that limit what gets disclosed and how it is displayed on packages.
Collectively, the food industry spent $69 million to defeat statewide food labeling initiatives in California in 2012 and in Washington in 2013.
“When the government mandates labeling, it is trying to convey information about health, safety and nutrition,” said Louis Finkel, the vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for food makers and distributors. “Mandatory labeling for GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is not justified and would be misleading.”
Each month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans buy $56 billion to $68 billion worth of food to eat at home. That makes the stakes in the labeling war enormous for companies and consumers.
Forcing companies to prominently display information that some customers may see as negative “runs against brand management,” said Scott Faber, who worked several years as head lobbyist of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, but now leads pro-labeling forces as a vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
If it is passed by both chambers of Congress, the House bill introduced April 10 by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., will invalidate the new Vermont law, as well as labeling statutes already on the books in Maine and Connecticut and any future state legislation. In Minnesota, a labeling bill will be the subject of a legislative hearing next week.
In the meantime, the grocery association is considering suing Vermont for an unconstitutional infringement of food companies’ free speech.
At the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn., director Ronnie Cummins accused labeling opponents of “squelching states’ rights for food safety.” Cummins’ group recently paid for ads supporting the Vermont law, which was passed by the state’s Senate 28-2 on April 16. The Vermont House passed a slightly different bill earlier, but legislators are expected to work out their differences.
Spokesman Mark Klein summed up the position of Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill Inc., one of the world’s largest distributors of crops and meat, with a strong endorsement of the federal legislation and praise for genetic engineering.
Foods with GMOs “are materially the same” as foods without them, he maintained. Genetic engineering “is not the only tool, but it is a powerful tool that can meet the growing demand for food.”
General Mills Inc., which spent more than $2 million helping to defeat the California and Washington labeling initiatives, backs the new U.S. House bill and called for a national labeling standard. Hormel endorsed the House bill and national standards, too. Land O’Lakes and Faribault Foods did not respond to requests for comment, but both companies have contributed to past food industry campaigns to defeat state labeling initiatives.
“A patchwork of labels that would differ from state to state based on differing state-based standards would be confusing and costly for companies and consumers alike,” General Mills Vice President Tom Forsythe said. “The national organic standard is an excellent model, in our view. Organic certification and labeling standards were established at the national level — not state by state — and certified organic means the same thing everywhere you shop.”
For consumer advocates like Cummins and Faber, the issue comes down to who controls the information. They say the national standards the industry envisions limit consumers’ ability to make buying decisions because the standards ignore customers’ preferences. It is an argument that extends beyond genetic engineering to food labeling in general.
For instance, the meat industry and the U.S. government are now in court over new federal rules that require meat packages to list where livestock was born, raised and slaughtered — so-called country-of-origin labeling.
The struggle over food labeling, Faber said, “is a referendum on the right of people to make choices for their families.”
In the case of genetically engineered foods, a coalition of consumer groups called Just Label It has gathered 1.4 million signatures asking for mandatory labeling rules similar to those that took effect in Europe more than a decade ago. Pesticides used on crops, animal cruelty and child labor in production are among the concerns that advocates cite.
But there are also existing labeling requirements that don’t just involve health, safety and nutrition, Faber maintained. “Listing whether orange juice is made from concentrate is not a health question,” he said. “It is to protect consumers from deception.”
Food labeling is not necessarily a partisan political issue. In Minnesota’s House delegation, Republicans did not respond to requests for comment, but Democrats came down on both sides.
Rep. Tim Walz has not yet decided if he will support the new labeling bill, spokesman Tony Ufkin said, but the Minnesota Democrat “generally feels that science doesn’t support the need for mandatory labels.” Walz, whose constituents include farmers as well as Mayo Clinic doctors, also thinks “biotechnology is a science with the potential to yield important agricultural solutions.”
Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis in the House, took a very different stance.
“Minnesotans should be able to decide what they want to know about the food they put on the dinner table every night,” Ellison said. “Minnesota’s families don’t benefit from bans on labeling.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not determined that genetically engineered food ingredients are “demonstrably different than an item that has not been genetically engineered,” said William Hueston, coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Food Policy Research Center.
“To date, there has not been a smoking gun for a scientific point of view. But science cannot prove that something is safe, only that it is not unsafe.”
There is also what Hueston calls a “precautionary principle” of public health that “errs on the side of caution.”
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
It is unclear how informative labeling will be even if it is required, according to Hueston. UM’s food policy center hosted a dialogue between businesses and consumers looking for common ground. One suggestion was placing a bar code on packages that could be scanned to access a website with detailed information about ingredients for those who want it.
“If you put more and more stuff on labels,” Hueston said, “at some point, it becomes a blur.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services