GMO labelling in the US

GMO labelling in the US

We knew something was up early in January. ‘Why we support mandatory national GMO labeling’ read the headline on the US food producer Campbell’s website. Polls amongst consumers had repeatedly shown that more than 90% of Americans wanted to know what exactly goes into their food and how it is produced. As the Campbell’s company policy was all about transparency, labelling GM ingredients was the right step to take, the press release stated. For the first time it looked as if the impact of the mandatory labelling law the small East Coast state of Vermont passed in 2014 might be felt across the US.

Four months on several other big food companies have declared that they will label GMOs, among them are chocolate manufacturer Mars, Kelloggs, ConAgra and General Mills (the latter are huge conglomerates selling products under a large number of brand names). All companies say that GMOs have been scientifically proven to be safe to eat and they point to the US Food and Drug Administration, FDA, which considers components of a GM plant to be “the same as or substantially similar” to non GM plants. The industry also points out that GM crops and genetic engineering as a technique are desperately needed if food is to remain cheap. A remarkable U-turn if you keep in mind that food and agrochemical companies, farm lobbyists and retailers have invested huge sums to block any state initiative that demanded mandatory labelling. In the US state of Oregon alone these groups as recently as 2014 invested over $21 million dollar to stop a mandatory labelling initiative.

Until March this year the National Grocers Association together with the food industry had hoped that the Senate would pass a federal voluntary GM labelling bill (an amended version of the original Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act) which would have prevented the Vermont law from coming into effect on July 1st. A QR code on the product would have given consumers immediate access to a company’s website with additional information about ingredients and production methods. The food manufacturers argued that via a website they would be able to inform consumers about the benefits of GMOs. Being mandated to print ‘made with GMOs’ on a label could appear ‘like a scull and crossbones’ and scare some consumers into ‘not buying perfectly safe products’.

Even for the amended bill to go through the Senate the Republicans would have needed the support of several Democrats. And the US are not only in the middle of a presidential election campaign, several Senators are up for re-election too. Bipartisan agreement on anything is highly unlikely – which means the Vermont law will very probably come into effect.

According to the law the food manufacturers are responsible for the accurate labelling of their products. If after a grace period of six months a product is found on a supermarket shelf in Vermont that should have GMOs listed on the label but doesn’t, the manufacturer can be fined up to $1000 a day.

All large food manufacturers work with logistic centres that are able to deliver products fast and on demand to pretty much any location. Which means that the suppliers can only comply with the Vermont law if all their products are labelled according to the Vermont standard. Which means in effect the tiny state with a population of just over 600,000 is by default introducing mandatory labelling across the United States.

Why does it matter to us here in the UK? Every time US consumers choose a non-GM product it sends a message to the food industry: we want healthy food, not made from plants that have been engineered to withstand ever higher doses of agrochemicals. Yes, in the EU GMOs are not allowed. (With one big exception – conventional farmers can and do feed GM soy and maize to their animals, a practice that does not have to be declared or labelled.) Call me a pessimist, but I think there is a good chance that the US succeeds in cracking open the European market for GM products and production in one of the TTIP trade talk rounds. Should that happens we’d at least know what we buy because it’s on the label. We too would have a choice to leave GM products on the shelf.

* The nickname for ‘The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015’ sponsored by Mike Pompeo, a Republican Congressman from Kansas after Vermont passed the mandatory labelling law. The bill would give ‘sole authority to the Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory labeling on such foods if they are ever found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without GM ingredients.’ Anti GMO campaigners called it the ‘Deny Americans the Right-to-Know’ or (DARK) Act.