Congressional Action on Food Labeling Needed | Commentary

Posted November 13, 2014 at 12:46pm

Voters in Colorado and Oregon have spoken with a firm voice in opposition to mandatory labeling of foods that contain ingredients produced via agricultural biotechnology. After closely examining the facts, voters decided they wanted no part of a system that would have provided them incomplete, inaccurate information and led to higher grocery prices for families. They join voters in Washington and California who rejected similar proposals in recent years.

They join a growing list of states that have voted down labeling initiatives and legislation. In 2014, more than 100 bills in more than 20 states proposing the labeling or outright prohibition of biotech products were rejected. While Vermont remains the only state in the nation to pass a unilateral labeling law, there are lessons to be learned from the proposed laws in Oregon and Colorado. Had those measures passed, each state would have been operating under significantly different standards. Consumers would have faced different realities in grocery store aisles. Yet one thing would have been constant: uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the anti-GMO activists who are pushing these laws will surely press on. Indeed, for many of these activists, financial success depends on it.

While these activists claim to be interested in increasing transparency, nothing could be further from the truth. If they succeed in their efforts, a bag of potato chips that is labeled GMO in one state may not be in another. Food bought in a grocery store would be labeled, but the same food served in a restaurant would not. In Colorado and Oregon, two-thirds of the food containing GMOs would have been exempted from labeling. In Vermont, there are three different labels for manufacturers to choose from.

All of this uncertainty will not come without a price. Mandatory state labeling laws will severely cripple existing supply chains. Farmers will have to segment crops and ensure biotech seeds are not accidentally mixed with conventional ones. Those farmers who plant both biotech and conventional crops may even have to buy a second set of harvesting equipment. Food manufacturers will be forced to develop separate production runs, add inventory space and create new distribution models. This will all cost money and you, the consumer, can expect to be left footing the bill.

According to a recent Cornell University study, the average New York family would see their grocery bill spike by an average of $500 per year if that state adopted a mandatory labeling law. Similarly, a study by the Washington State Academy of Sciences found that mandatory labeling would impose new direct and indirect costs on grocery prices as they move down the supply chain. Those costs, the study found, would be passed on to ordinary Americans in the form of higher food prices.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Foods produced with agricultural biotech products have been deemed safe by the most respected scientific and regulatory bodies in the world. We have been eating them for roughly 20 years; that’s seven trillion meals without a single documented adverse health effect. Anti-GMO activists gin up fear with pseudo-science and discredited reports.

While concerns over GMOs are unfounded, the marketplace does already give options to those who wish to avoid them. Food labeled United States Department of Agriculture certified organic is GMO free. Likewise, “Non-GMO Project” verified items have been tested and confirmed to be GMO free. These items, unsurprisingly, cost more than their GMO counterparts. But it is only people wanting to avoid GMOs who pay more. It is wrong to force all shoppers to pay more when these options already exist.

Clearly, the ultimate goal of anti-GMO forces is not to offer consumers a choice, but to remove choice by eliminating this technology completely. This would be an unfortunate development.

We need a federal solution to stop this patchwork of misinformation from spreading once and for all. The Pompeo-Butterfield Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, currently before the House of Representatives, would ensure that Americans have the reliable, accurate and informative labeling they deserve.

The 114th Congress provides an ideal opportunity for Congress to pass, and the President to sign, a common sense, national labeling standard that consumers deserve.

Charles F. Conner is a former United States deputy secretary of Agriculture and is currently president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.