New York Times.
WASHINGTON — The Senate will grapple this week with perhaps the most contentious issue in the food industry: whether the government should require mandatory labeling on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
On Wednesday, the Senate is set to vote on a measure that would create voluntary national standards for labeling food with genetically modified ingredients. The bill would prevent states from mandating labels just before Vermont was set to become the first in the nation to impose such requirements.
But the measure most likely lacks sufficient support from Democrats, most of whom would like to see a mandatory labeling program that offers food manufacturers different options for presenting the information, including a simple symbol. That means the legislation will almost certainly have to be revised.
“Voluntary standards are no standards at all,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana and an organic farmer. “We need to defeat this bill,” he added. “This is bad, bad, bad policy.”
A federal labeling law that pre-empts a state’s ability to write its own would seem out of step with the congressional Republican orthodoxy, which tends to favor states’ prerogatives in policy making and regulations.
But there is a concern among many lawmakers — including some Democrats from farm states — that mandatory laws would increase food prices and unfairly hamper food producers.
Large food and biotech companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting a mandatory label, and those favoring labeling have logged hundreds of hours over the last month in meetings with senators and their aides.
“It’s going to have a dramatic impact on the cost of food over time,” said Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina and a member of the Senate Agriculture committee. “It’s going to be kind of a de facto regressive tax. The poorest people are going to be harmed the most because it is going to drive up the cost of the food supply chain.”
Republicans insisted that they had gone out of their way to give concessions to pro-labeling factions — whose ranks include famous chefs and movie stars — by adding language to the bill that creates a mandatory labeling program if the voluntary program is ineffective after several years.
Under the bill, the Agriculture Department would establish a national voluntary marketing standard for foods that are bioengineered or may contain bioengineering and encourage participation with incentives.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone,” said Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the committee, on the Senate floor on Tuesday. The House passed a similar bill last summer. “We must not demonize food with unnecessary labels,” he added.
Many food companies have already gotten approval for labels, but the industry remains concerned about having to comply with a patchwork of state laws that would add their costs to their businesses.
The Vermont regulation, for example, has so many exemptions that less than half the foods and beverages sold there would need labeling, according to the Just Label It campaign, which is supported by a coalition of natural and organic food businesses that argue consumers have a right to know if genetically altered ingredients are in the food they eat.
“A massive number of food companies have already gotten their labels approved by Vermont,” said Gary Hirshberg, the leader of Just Label It. “It’s now really the commodity players, big soy, corn and sugar, that have decided this is their Waterloo and that labeling will fundamentally change their business.”
This month, for example, the Corn Refiners Association released a study concluding that nationwide labeling — and a consequent shift in ingredients by food companies seeking to avoid the labels’ stigma — would raise the average family’s grocery bill by more than $1,000 a year.
Maine and Connecticut have also adopted labeling standards, but those laws do not go into effect until other states in the region also pass laws.
Food companies change their labels all the time. Many companies, in fact, are in the process of generating new labels to reflect changes they are making in ingredients to respond to consumer demands for foods that don’t contain things like artificial colorings and high-fructose corn syrup.
But Campbell Soup, which was the first major United States food company to say it would add information about genetically altered ingredients to all its products by 2018, has said it does not expect labeling to add significantly to its costs. Campbell has come out in support of a compromise bill proposed by Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, that would give companies four options for labeling, none of which would put the information on the front of the package.
The resistance to the bill has sometimes exposed some corporate contradictions. General Mills, for example, opposes labeling, but it allows its organic and natural foods businesses, like the Annie’s Homegrown brand, to speak out in favor of labeling. Nestlé, too, has spent large sums opposing labeling, but it is adding non-GMO claims to the front of packaging on many of its products.
Companies are worried that a label stating that a product contains genetically altered ingredients — the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that more than 70 percent of products on store shelves contain derivatives of corn, soy, sugar beets or canola, the four largest genetically modified crops — will suggest such things are unsafe or unhealthy and thus suppress sales.
On the other hand, a study by two agricultural economists of consumer attitudes toward “transgenic” labels used in Brazil — where foods have been labeled since 2001, to indicate foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered commodities — found that “the mere presence of the GMO label did not lead to a greater level of concern about GMOs.”
In the same way, labeling a food as free of genetically altered ingredients has not necessarily improved sales. General Mills got no bump in sales after it labeled packages of original Cheerios as GMO-free, and products that gain certification from the Non GMO Project have not shown significant increases in sales either. “One of the biggest consumer trends in food is the push for transparency,” Mr. Hirshberg said. “That’s really what this is about.”