May 19, 2016
Aiming for a GMO labeling compromise
Ana Olvera

The need to see action on the voluntary genetic modified organism (GMO) labeling situation has reached a breaking point after the last few months of discussion. With Vermont’s mandatory on-package GMO labeling law set to take effect July 1 and Congress not yet moving on a national GMO labeling standard, U.S. food packagers and growers are being forced to take unprecedented steps that could significantly change how American farmers grow healthful, abundant and affordable food.

The House passed bipartisan legislation last summer that would establish a voluntary labeling standard and prevent a patchwork of state mandates. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts’ voluntary GMO labeling bill did not clear the votes needed to move to final passage in March. The National Potato Council (NPC) supported Sen. Roberts’ legislation. During the Potato D.C. Fly-In, growers told their elected representatives that individual state regulations are not a workable solution to labeling for the U.S. food supply. All parties are now waiting to see if a compromise can be reached.

Since January, a handful of the biggest food companies, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and ConAgra, have announced that they will label their products nationwide in order to be in compliance with Vermont’s law. These companies are taking on the burden to re-label products now to avoid fines and slowdowns.

Without a federal labeling directive, it is virtually impossible for consumers not to see an increase in their food costs. Based on an analysis done by the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, a patchwork of state-by-state labeling requirements would add hundreds of dollars to the average family’s grocery bill each year. On the other side of the food chain, thousands of smaller companies are now faced with complying with a very costly Vermont law. These companies will have to address significant compliance concerns or their distribution could slow or halt.

It will be difficult and confusing for food companies to label and distribute their products so they meet each state’s potential requirements. Simply understanding the labeling nuances and exemptions would be a challenge.

In Vermont, for example, whole animal products produced entirely from an animal are exempt. This means the state’s lucrative dairy industry is exempt from the labeling directive, as are foods prepared for immediate consumption and not packaged for retail, along with all certified USDA organic foods, food truck foods and sandwich shops. However, dairy products that contain added, non-animal- derived, genetically engineered ingredients are not exempt.

While NPC is hopeful that a compromise can occur, at the time of this column nothing had changed the Vermont law. Stay tuned as NPC follows this issue and continues to support a bipartisan bill for uniform food labeling requirements.

— John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO, National Potato Council


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