Good food, fair prices for farmers and discount supermarkets rarely come together in one sentence. But recent news from Lidl proves to be the exception to the rule: Lidl Germany is stocking GMO-free dairy products!
GMO-free milk is already on their shelves; two GMO-free cheese varieties will be available nationwide from this month. Lidl shops in Bavaria will introduce other GMO-free dairy products including cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, mozzarella and sliced cheese. If customers like them, these items will be rolled out across Germany.
There is a GMO ban in place in the EU, you may say, so why is this a big deal? True. And baring a few exemptions, GMO crops cannot be grown in Europe. What the EU does not ban is the import of GM maize and soy as cattle feed. That means neither dairy products nor meat from animals raised on GM feed must be labelled.
Organic production standards do not allow the use of GM feed, so unless you are buying certified organic produce you are likely to consume meat or dairy products from animals fed on GMOs. Conventional producers who tend to compete on price have had little choice but to go for cheap GM feed – which makes Lidl’s decision all the more remarkable: the company says it will take on additional costs incurred by farmers sourcing GM-free feed!
And while shoppers are at it they can also pick up a GM-free chicken – the supplier, Wiesenhof, who delivers 4.5 million chickens per week to German supermarkets - including Lidl - banned the use of GM-feed in January 2015.
But that’s Lidl Germany. Customers in the UK have some lobbying to do (and Brexit isn’t helping....) or switch to organic.
For the time being that’s what shoppers in the US will have to do, too. On July 1st the Vermont GMO labelling law came into force as the US Senate had failed to pass a bill that could have stopped that state law to come into effect. But the Vermont victory only lasted a fortnight until the US Senate passed the amended ‘GMO disclosure bill’ which President Obama sign into law on August 1st.
GMO disclosure, GMO labelling – ‘what’s the difference?’ you may ask.
It’s in where and how you find the information. While the Vermont law requires food manufacturers to state on the label if their product contains GMO ingredients, the federal GMO disclosure bill only needs the company to say how the information can be accessed: by scanning a QR code, calling a free phone number or checking a website.
Is anyone shopping for groceries really going to fiddle around with a smartphone to get this information? For lobby groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the discloser bill works just fine. In future: whatever information pressure groups may want to see printed on a label – the industry can now bury it in the QR code. The Vermont Attorney General, William Sorrell, recently summed it up in an interview*: “I think spending millions and millions of dollars on lobbying can have real influence on the Congress. I think what Congress has enacted is not a consumer friendly bill, but is a Big Agriculture, Big Food friendly bill and consumers in Vermont and nationwide are the worse for it.”
Polls suggest that more than half of Americans don’t believe food containing GMOs is safe to eat and 93% want it labelled. Unsurprisingly, that got Agro-chemical companies and the food industry scared that consumers might interpret GMOs on a label not as disclosure (like salt, fat content or calories) but as a health warning. With shoppers now having to jump through hoops to get the information on GMO content, chances are they can’t be bothered and the industry won’t be punished at the till.
But William Sorrell, the Vermont Attorney General, remains optimistic. More and more companies are labelling GMOs. The first to make the announcement was Campbell’s. Then chocolate manufacturer Mars, Kelloggs, ConAgra and General Mill followed. “We will see more companies come forward”, said Sorrell, “this is a trend and in a number of years we will look back on this (the federal disclosure bill) as just a bump in the road”.
* William Sorrell was interviewed on the US AgriTalk podcast on July 27th, 2016.