Flawed US GMO labelling will damage the anti-GM movement on both sides of the Atlantic

April 19, 2016 by Lawrence Woodward

Things have been happening rapidly on the GMO labelling front in the United States.

There may have been a breakthrough; if so, it’s not yet clear how far will it go. But something few have considered is how it could adversely affect us on this side of the Atlantic.

Many of us have been cheering on GMO labelling campaigners in the US and given little thought to how a victory for them will impact on the broader opposition to GM technology – there and over here.

Have we even considered what a “victory” looks like? Could we be cheering what will turn out to be a dressed up defeat?

The good – some labelling is happening

In a significant development the giant food companies, General Mills, Mars, Kellogg and Con Agra, recently announced that they are following the course set by Campbell’s in January 2016 and will label all of their products made with genetically engineered ingredients.

This comes in the wake of last month’s defeat in the US Senate of measures to prevent individual states passing GMO labelling laws; an event which brings closer the implementation of legislation passed in 2014 by the state of Vermont.

Faced with having to meet Vermont’s mandatory GMO labelling requirement from July or suffer fines of a $1000 dollar a day per product the companies have decided to label – and to do so nationally.

“In order to comply with the Vermont law we had to label nationally because we have a national distribution system” – was the rather grudging statement from General Mills, the owner of some of the leading US food brands.

To ensure no-one gets the wrong impression about where it really stands, General Mills has reaffirmed its support for efforts led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to prevent individual states passing GMO labelling laws.

As well as spending millions lobbying Congress, the GMA is trying to overturn the Vermont law in federal courts. Currently the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals is considering an appeal by the GMA and others which could prevent or postpone the law’s planned July 1st implementation.

The bad – no right to know

What has become clear is that the food industry no longer has a united front on this issue; earlier this year both Campbell’s and Mars distanced themselves from the GMA.

Mars said that its decision to label all its relevant US products is “in response to consumer desire to know when GM ingredients are being used.”

But note the use of the word “desire” and not “right”.

Neither the food industry nor a majority of Senators and Representatives in the US Congress have acknowledged that consumers have “a right to know” through labelling which foods are produced using GMOs.

Even the controversial Vermont law has some significant labelling exemptions including food prepared in restaurants, take-away meals and, most notably, all meat products.

It is expected that more companies will begin to label their GMO-containing products. Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group believes that around a dozen will join the bandwagon within the next couple of weeks.

Sophie Ann Terrisse, from New York brand-management firm 26FIVE in New York, says companies “won’t have a choice.”

“For food and consumer product companies, trust is paramount to keep and attract customers.”  She argues that companies which label now, rather than wait, will benefit by earning the trust of their customers.

She also expects they will choose to comply nationally with the terms of the Vermont law – as the ones who have started labelling are doing – and this will become the template for labelling laws in other states.

The (potentially) ugly – a labelling compromise

Labelling bills are currently pending in 31 other states and statutes similar to Vermont’s have already been passed in Connecticut and Maine.

There is significant support for labelling within the state legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York and this, coupled with the new found corporate willingness to label, could lead to relatively swift changes and the creation of a New England GMO labelling retail bloc.

On the other hand, opposition to labelling from others in the agri-food sector and the conflict over Federal and State jurisdictions is likely to intensify.

Concerns, fostered by industry lobbyists, about a potential hotchpotch of differing state rules creating obstacles to trade, increased costs to farmers, food companies and consumers and labelling that stigmatises genetic engineering, still prevail in Congress.

In addition, there is a deep-seated view amongst many lawmakers that federal labelling should encompass only health and safety matters – which they maintain is not an issue with GMOs – and not questions of choice or production information.

These factors foster formidable opposition to federal mandatory labelling. It’s a certainty that that there will be energetic attempts to find a compromise in Congress over the next few months.

It should be remembered that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already passed a bill preventing individual States from enacting GMO labelling, the Senate is close to a split because a number of Democrats (mainly from farm states) are completely opposed to labelling or would like to see a compromise.

The end of the “broad church” campaign?

Some labelling advocates believe that the further the company labelling bandwagon rolls the more difficult it will be for Congress or the Federal government to stop mandatory labelling and pre-empt them with voluntary schemes.

A contrary argument is that the more companies voluntarily label according to the terms of the Vermont law, alongside the growth of GMO free verification schemes (such as the Non GMO Project label), the less need there is for mandatory labels.

Several compromise proposals have been tabled both in Congress and by federal officials, including the idea of a mandatory barcode on product packaging which consumers could scan using a smart phone and access information about GMO use.

This doesn’t cut it for most pro GMO labelling campaigners; anything less than clear and unequivocal on-package labelling will be inadequate for them.

But there are some in the hitherto broad church of campaigners who might be swayed. It has been reported that “secret” meetings have been held between some of them and the US Secretary of State for Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to explore compromise options.

Consumer response: confusion and acceptance?

It is not yet clear how consumers will respond to the new GMO labels but the partial nature of the Vermont rules is likely to lead to some confusion.

Vermont regulations only cover products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and exempts meat and poultry products regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Denise Morrison, Campbell’s chief executive, has highlighted the case of that company’s SpaghettiOs where the original variety handled by the FDA will need a label, but SpaghettiOs with meatballs, covered by the USDA, will not.

”These two varieties sit next to each other on a store shelf, which is bound to create consumer confusion”.

It is uncertain how many consumers will be turned off by such confusion and find they are not really that bothered about GMO labels.

Moreover, the shared, but hitherto untested, conviction of pro- and anti-labelling proponents that GMO labels will lead to a dramatic reduction in the sales of GMO ingredient products is about to get a real world examination.

Whilst polls routinely show that over 90% of Americans want GMO labelling, to date, there is little solid information as to how many people will continue to purchase GMO produced foods if they are labelled.

Recent research shows that the majority of US citizens feel GM foods are unsafe but it also shows that overall public knowledge of the issue is superficial and open to influence.

Companies who have accepted labelling are not going to remove GMO ingredients from their products, so presumably they think their sales will not be adversely affected to any significant degree or that they can mitigate any impact through information and marketing.

Long term agriculture industry commentator Laura Rance argues that:

“Acknowledging consumers’ right to know how their food is produced removes the biggest weapon the anti-GMO campaign has in its arsenal – the notion that the industry opposes labelling because it has something to hide.

Chances are, once consumers are assured of their right to know, most will shrug and continue to buy the products they’ve always enjoyed.”

The Vermont labelling law: a transatlantic Trojan Horse

She may well be correct and we shall find that the creation of a GMO labelling broad church has turned out to be a “Trojan Horse”.

The strategy which evolved in recent years, sought to make GMO labelling winnable by making it more palatable to policy makers. This has focused predominately on the “right to know”; has largely put to one side wider farming and food issues; and has been willing to accept labelling exemptions such as those on meat products.

But success on those terms could inflict significant damage on the overall anti-GMO campaign in the US.

It will be problematic this side of the Atlantic too – however it pans out over there.

In the UK and the rest of the EU most food produced using GMOs has to be labelled. They can be so pathetically small you need a magnifying glass to see them – but they do have to be there.

Except – and the exception is massive – for livestock products where the animals have been fed with feed produced with GMOs or containing GMO residues. Nor are consumers allowed to know if they are buying products from animals which have been treated with vaccines produced using GMOs.

There are other exemptions; food sold through catering outlets in the EU – whether eat in or take away – does not have to be labelled; except, strangely in the UK, where for once the Food Standards Agency interpreted an EU regulation in favour of the consumer instead of industry (not that it is enforced but that’s another matter).

Campaigners have been working hard but without success to plug this gap and secure GM labelling on livestock products. Companies have shrugged off these demands by saying they are complying with the law; and regulators, if they bother to respond at all, argue that it is too complicated and costly.

Any GMO labelling in the US – whether voluntary or regulatory (either/or State/Federal) – which exempts livestock products undermines the campaign here.

Furthermore, within the context of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade Investor Partnership), it could deal a fatal blow in the battle to win comprehensive and transparent labelling of all foods and feed produced with genetic engineering technology.

Changing the TTIP balance

TTIP, it is claimed, is about creating regulatory “harmony” or “equivalence”; euphemisms for removing all consumer and citizen protection that get in the way of the narrow interests of industry and corporations.

Differences between the US and the EU over genetic engineering are seen as a major obstacle to securing a TTIP deal. Until now – as far as we know given the undemocratic, secretive nature of the negotiations – the issue has not been progressed.

However, the emergence in the US of industry wide agreements – either voluntary, state/federal regulation based, or a mixture of them – based on the Vermont law with all its livestock products and other exemptions will open up the GMO issue within TTIP.

It will allow US negotiators to abandon a hard line “no labelling at all” position and create space for discussions on “flexible”, “innovative” ways consumer information can be delivered.

Existing exemptions – especially on livestock products – will be fixed and, depending on how far things develop in the US, bar codes rather than clear on-package label information could come into play.

This might also influence negotiations relating to decisions on which new genetic engineering technologies – the so called new plant breeding technologies (NPBTs) – should be covered under GMO regulations.

The legal status of a number of these is currently being assessed, although CRISPR – which has become the most prominent one – is not, as yet under consideration.  It is likely that some will fall in and some outside of the scope of existing EU regulations.

It doesn’t stretch imagination too far to see a proposal for an “innovative” swerve around the regulations for some of them, if bar codes rather than transparent labelling win the day in the US – after all, it could be claimed, this would meet the consumers “right to know”.

Even if TTIP falls, partial and flawed GMO labelling in the US strengthens partial and flawed GMO labelling in Europe. The push for “harmonised” regulation – meaning hollowed out regulation – will continue with or without TTIP.

Victory in Vermont should be cheered but with a muted one or possibly one and a half cheers; and only as part of the effort to win comprehensively.