More than six months after a big defeat in California, the movement to label foods containing genetically modified organisms appears to be picking up steam across the country. In the past three weeks, Connecticut and Maine passed labeling bills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time approved a non-GMO label claim for meat products, Chipotle began voluntarily labeling menu items containing GMO ingredients online, and, perhaps most notably, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration funding to label genetically modified salmon if the agency approves the fish. These are all small steps compared to what California’s Proposition 37 would have accomplished – since the populous state consumes a significant share of groceries in the United States, some speculated that food giants would have reformulated their products to avoid creating two supply chains – but the string of victories has many in the so-called ‘Right to Know’ movement confident the tide is turning in their favor. “It’s simply a matter of time,” said Scott Faber, who serves as executive director of Just Label It, a national advocacy campaign. Faber, who is vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, used to be a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which actively lobbies against mandatory labeling initiatives. Faber believes mandated GMO labeling is inevitable in part because the food industry would prefer federal standards over a patchwork of state laws. “I think companies are starting to realize the fight is worse than the label,” he added, noting that campaigns against labeling can harm consumer confidence in certain companies. Some consumers, for example, who buy brands like Cascadian Farm, Kashi, Horizon Organic, Muir Glen, and Odwalla were outraged last fall after learning the companies’ corporate owners had helped fund the effort to defeat Prop 37. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement that it remains opposed to “special mandatory labeling for food products containing genetically modified ingredients because these labels could mislead consumers into believing that ingredients from genetically engineered plants are somehow different or unsafe or unhealthy – in clear contradiction of scientific fact.” GMA points out that ingredients derived from GM plants have been widely studied and are considered safe by FDA and groups like the American Medical Association. According to the association, foods with genetically modified ingredients make up 70 to 8o percent of the products on grocery store shelves “because they require fewer pesticides, help foods have a longer shelf life and keep production costs down” which reduces food costs for consumers. The group has been actively engaged in the labeling issue and contributed $2 million to help defeat Prop 37, which ultimately went down 51 to 48 percent. In total, $9.2 million was spent in support of the proposition and $46 million was spent opposing it. In a speech last summer to the American Soybean Association, GMA CEO Pam Bailey said, “Defeating the initative is GMA’s single highest priority this year,” according to an account in the Hagstrom Report. “We have worked with you on what we consider to be valuable technology, but in the past year we have seen an increase in the rhetoric against it.” Bailey said the current movement for labeling is stronger than past attempts. “Social media is feeding this effort and making it more difficult to confront and more powerful,” she said, according to the report.
While momentum may by building for labeling advocates, their recent victories come with significant caveats.
The bills approved in Connecticut and Maine only kick in if other states, including a neighboring state, pass labeling requirements. Vermont’s house passed a bill to require labeling GMOs in May, but the state senate is not expected to take up the same law until next year. Labeling legislation or ballot initiatives have been introduced in 25 other states, but it’s not clear how many states would actually adopt them.
Baylen Linnekin, the executive director of Keep Food Legal, a group that advocates against government involvement in the food arena, said he thinks mandatory labeling is unnecessary and still faces significant challenges going forward. “I would not say it’s inevitable,” said Linnekin, explaining that even if labeling laws succeed at the state level they would be challenged in court. In a recent column for Reason, Linnekin argued the government should stay out of the labeling business: “The truth is that most federal labeling schemes are flawed at best, and often involve conflicts and compromises that rob meaning from the label.” On the other hand, Linnekin applauds the voluntary actions by companies like Whole Foods, which announced earlier this year it will require GMO labeling in its stores by 2018, and McDonalds and Starbucks, which both recently adopted calorie labeling on their menus. The non-GMO label approved by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service last week – the first GMO-related claim allowed on packages – and Chipotle’s decision to note which foods contain GMOs on their online menu are prime examples of voluntary moves to meet niche consumer demands. According to the New York Times, FSIS approved the label – which can be used on meat, poultry, and liquid eggs from animals fed only non-GMO feed – after three meat companies petitioned for similar claims. The claim will be certified by the Non-GMO Project. Private sector labels to help consumers avoid products containing GM ingredients have taken off in recent years. The Non-GMO Project, the leading third-party certifier in North America for non-GMO claims, said interest in certification has increased four-fold in the past year alone as Prop 37 and the Whole Foods announcement have raised consumer awareness about GMOs. The group now certifies more than 10,000 products. “These days you can walk into a gas station and find Non-GMO verified products,” said Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the project. Despite the explosion in voluntary labeling, advocates want a national law. While there are labeling bills in both chambers, no one expects Congress will approve them anytime soon. In May, the U.S. Senate voted on an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would have allowed states to label GMOs, but the measure failed by a vote of 71 to 27, and some legal experts say the amendment wasn’t necessary. The closest advocates have come to mandatory, national GMO labeling of any kind, was last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 15 to 14 to give the FDA $150,000 to implement labeling for GM salmon if the agency gives the fish a green light, which it is expected to do. FDA has said it would not require the GM salmon to be labeled, which is consistent with the agency’s policy that GM foods are not materially different from non-GM foods. Some advocates think this decision has driven more consumers to support labeling efforts. A Change.org petition asking FDA to require labeling for the modified salmon garnered nearly 25,000 signatures and consumer campaigns pressured Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Target, Giant Eagle, and 50 other retailers to promise they wont sell the fish even if the FDA approves it. A handful of U.S. lawmakers, mostly from states like Alaska, Washington and Oregon, whose wild salmon fisheries are highly lucrative, have opposed approving the GM salmon and have argued that if the fish is approved it should be labeled as a GMO. The labeling amendment that succeeded in the Senate Appropriations Committee was co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). In the House, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has made similar attempts at mandating labeling for GM salmon. Colin O’Neil, a regulatory analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an anti-GMO advocacy group, called the amendment “a big step forward for labeling in this country” because clearing the committee is a “huge hurdle.” The bill will next head to the Senate floor. The group said it’s not aware of efforts to strip the Begich-Murkowski amendment from the appropriations bill, but said it would be closely monitoring the legislation when it goes to conference to be reconciled with the House version because “we have not seen something like this get that far before.” Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated that Sen. Sanders amendment would have mandated GMO labeling. It has been corrected to reflect that the amendment would have allowed states to label.