The battle over whether to require food companies to label products containing genetically modified ingredients has for years pitted health and transparency activists against the monied interests behind food production.
Food companies and their trade groups spent tens of millions of dollars on state-level ballot campaigns opposing GMO labeling, successfully preventing ballot question measures in four states: California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.
Legislation has been introduced in dozens more states, according to the Center for Food Safety, but only three states—Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine—have passed mandatory GMO labeling laws. Vermont’s law is scheduled to go into effect in July, which has Big Food worried about the costs of producing labels for only one state—and the steep penalties for not complying. According to the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, companies could be fined as much as $1,000 per day per unlabeled product.
Most Big Food producers have lined up behind a federal bill that would make labeling GMOs voluntary while preventing states from passing their own laws pertaining to modified foods. Opponents, who call this the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (or DARK) Act,” have obviously condemned the law, which failed to make the final version of a $1.1 trillion spending bill in December.
With Congress at an impasse on GMO labeling, and with the rollout of the Vermont law looming, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has summoned labeling activists and industry representatives to a meeting this week. His goal? "To explore that [common ground]” and bring the two sides together for some sort of compromise.
“I can't tell you whether there is," he continued, referring to common ground.
In the meeting (which could occur as early as today), Vilsack is “going to challenge them to get this thing fixed…to avoid making food more expensive,” the Secretary told the Des Moines Register in December. He’s also said he’s worried that a patchwork of state-level labeling laws could cause “chaos in the market”—a line borrowed from industry labeling opponents.
Not every major food brand opposes mandatory GMO labeling, however. Last week, Campbell Soup became the first to announce its support for mandatory labeling, saying that it would begin to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients in all its products. The New York Times reported that cans of SpaghettiOs, for instance, will feature this line at the bottom of the label: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”
Still, despite the company’s willingness to comply with state-level regulations, Campbell executives say they prefer a law mandating the labeling standard at the federal level.
“A state-by-state patchwork of laws could be incredibly costly not only for our company but for the entire industry,” Denise Morrison, chief executive of Campbell, told the Times.
Photo credit: Brian J Matis via Flickr