Big Food’s Proposed National Labeling Law for GMOs May Be Self-Serving

General Mills CEO backs a national label law while proposed legislation stagnates in Washington.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Sep 26, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When General Mills CEO Ken Powell told shareholders this week that he backs GMO labeling through a “national, federal labeling solution,” experts reading between the lines saw that as a strategic move.

The food industry wants to avoid state-by-state, store-by-store labeling requirements that are not uniform—which is one reason a national law sounds appealing.

It’s a tactic Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and president of Eat Drink Politics, predicted back in February, and she now warns that potential legislation may come with a downside.

“The devil is in the details,” Simon said. “Industry will agree to federal labeling, but in exchange, they say, ‘we want to preempt or stop any states from going further.’ ”

Ideally, a strong federal labeling law would be fine if it included such pre-emption, “but that’s not usually what happens,” she said. “Industry will try to get the weakest possible law at the national level and stop states from passing anything stronger.”

There are clear signs the industry doesn’t favor very strict standards.

Powell was adamant at the Fortune Brainstorm Green event in California in April that incorporating wording on product packaging alerting consumers to genetically modified ingredients was unnecessary because genetically modified ingredients are safe, and the requirement would be too onerous.

“Consumers tell us—and I think they’re right—they want to know about the ingredients, nutrition information, and safety of things like peanuts. They need to know these things,” he said in April. “But we should restrict the use of that label to these important things. If we broaden it to together things, we’ll have to add pages to the label. We don’t think we should do that.”

But Powell dialed that back earlier this week when he said he’d support labeling food that doesn’t have genetically engineered ingredients in them.

Labeling is already happening, to an extent.

Certified organic products already prohibit the use of GMOs, and many companies participate in the Non-GMO Project, a third-party verifier.

A national GMO labeling law was introduced in late April by Senator Barbara Boxer (CA-D) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR). It’s called the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. It would require the labeling of all genetically engineered (GE) foods at the federal level. Unfortunately, it’s been languishing in committee ever since.

And in March, Whole Foods announced a change in policy, requiring labeling of all products that contain genetically modified ingredients sold in their U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018.

What’s unclear is where General Mills and other large food companies stand on Washington’s upcoming ballot measure on GMO labeling. As of today, funding donations from food companies like General Mills, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft and others are noticeably absent in Washington’s labeling fight. That might be related to the vocal consumer backlash that took place after they collectively contributed millions to defeat Prop. 37, a similar measure in California last November.

Currently, 18 states have pending GMO labeling legislation.

Where the fight will go from here is anyone’s guess, but what’s clear is that this has turned into a national conversation with staying power.