More and more companies are listening to consumers, and labeling foods made with genetically modified and genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs). In just the last few days ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Mars, and General Mills joined Campbell’s in pledging to label their products that contain GMOs. These victories are a huge win for consumers who have demanded transparency in our food system. Since 2012, Green America, with the support of hundreds of thousands of consumers, has been pushing companies to label, and ultimately transition away from, genetically modified ingredients.
The Long Fight for GMO Labeling
The labeling of GMOs has been one of the most contentious issues within food policy. The debate over GMO labeling has been raging in Congress, at the state level, in board rooms, and in grocery stores across America.
In 2014, Vermont passed a law which would require foods made with genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled. The law requires that foods for human consumption that are available for retail sale that contain genetically modified ingredients shall be labeled as “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” or “produced with genetic engineering.” Foods that carry one of these labels will not be able to mislead consumers by claiming to be “natural” foods.
However, the Vermont law does have some labeling exceptions. Foods that are comprised of ingredients derived from animals that are fed GMOs do not need to be labeled. That means that things like eggs and milk will not be labeled as “produced with genetic engineering”, even if the animals that produced the products were fed GMOs such as corn and soy, as is the case in many factory farm operations. Consistent with non-GMO project standards, anything with less than 0.9% GMO also does not have to be labeled. Additionally, food offered for immediate consumption and food served in restaurants does not need to be labeled. Neither will alcoholic beverages or foods that use genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes.
The Vermont labeling law is set to go into effect July 1, 2016, and failure to comply could result in significant fines. For months big food and biotechnology companies have attempted to block the implementation of mandatory GMO labeling and preempt states from passing labeling laws through legislation and legal action.
In July 2015, the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Affordable Food Act, commonly referred to as the DARK Act. The DARK Act (Denying Americans the Right to Know) will prevent Americans from knowing if our food contains GMOs. Additionally, the DARK Act would overturn democratically-passed laws to label GMO foods in Vermont, prevent labeling in other states, and block the government from ever implementing mandatory, nationwide GMO food labeling.
Recently, a version of the DARK Act was introduced by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). It would have preempted all state GMO labeling laws, and left consumers with nothing but “voluntary” labeling, so that each food company using GMOs could choose whether or not to disclose that to the public.
Thanks to the hard work of Green Americans, as well as allies across the country, on March 16th, 2016 this bill faced bi-partisan rejection and was defeated on the floor of the Senate by a vote of 49-48.
What Can Consumers Expect to See on Food Packaging?
Without a uniform, national approach to common sense GMO labeling, many major food companies have taken it upon themselves to clearly and conspicuously label products that contain GMOs.
Campbell’s has lead the way, calling for mandatory clear on-package GMO label, while at the same time breaking with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been fighting GMO labeling.
Following suit, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, and ConAgra announced they will label their products nationwide in order to be in compliance with Vermont’s law. These companies claim that the costs associated with nationwide labeling won’t be passed on to consumers.
This means that consumers around the country could soon be seeing the words “partially produced with genetic engineering”; “may be produced with genetic engineering”; or “produced with genetic engineering” somewhere on food packaging or near ingredient labels. These labels will comply with the requirements of the Vermont law, and make it easier for consumers to know if the foods they are purchasing have GMO ingredients. Nestle is pursuing voluntary disclosure of non-GMO ingredients. It has announced it plans to work with the verification firm SGS to label foods that contain no GMOs.
While these companies have made commitments to label GMOs, many major manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Coke, Mondelez, J.M. Smucker’s, and Kraft are still keeping American’s in the DARK about what is in our food. Beyond looking for companies to voluntarily labeled products, consumers have two main options for avoiding GMOs at the grocery store including Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Certified Organic.
Even as the industry prepares to meet the requirements of the Vermont law, companies like General Mills, ConAgra, and Kellogg are holding out hope that Congress will find a compromise and establish a federal standard for labeling foods produced with genetic engineering.
Many are calling for a national GMO labeling scheme that relies primarily on electronic QR codes, websites, and call-in numbers to inform consumers about products that contain GMOs. However, these programs could potentially discriminate against low income and rural Americans, minorities, and the elderly. If the national standard does not include clear on-package labels, Campbell’s and Mars are the only major companies that have pledged to continue to provide Americans with the right to know what is in their food.
Overwhelmingly, Americans want to know what they are eating. In fact, 90% of Americans want foods made with GMOs to be labeled. Thanks to the actions of hundreds of thousands of individuals across the country over the past few years, big food companies are now listening to what consumers want and starting to label their products.
However, until Vermont and other state labeling laws come into effect, or the federal government institutes clear and conspicuous GMO labeling we must keep up the fight.
Green America and our GMO Inside campaign will continue to follow this issue, and posts updates on our Facebook page as these labels start to show up on the shelves.
Help us keep up the pressure and ensure that American’s aren’t kept in the dark about what is in our food.