The USDA’s New GMO-Free Label Is a Gift to Big Food

Millions of Americans have petitioned for a federal GMO label. When a ‘leading global company’ asks for one, it gets what it wants.

(Illustration: Lauren Wade/TakePart)

May 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing its own GMO labeling program, according to a Thursday report from The Associated Press.

Considering that for years, activists have been pushing for a federal standard for foods made with genetically modified ingredients, action from the USDA would appear to be big news. But even with a USDA labeling program, which would be both voluntary and geared at products that are GMO-free, the battle over what kind of label—if any—will be required in the U.S. on food made from genetically modified ingredients is far from over.

The whole thing sounds a bit suspect, starting with the fact that the USDA apparently doesn’t want you to know about the program—at least not yet.

The Associated Press learned about it from a letter that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent on May 1 to department employees outlining the plan, which would be the first government program to certify foods as GMO-free. (There is a federal labeling standard for meat produced without GMO feed.) The letter was leaked to the AP, and while a USDA spokesman confirmed to the news service that the letter was authentic, he declined further comment.

The second red flag comes from Vilsack’s letter. “Recently, a leading global company asked [the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service] to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such,” he wrote. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”

Even without the eyebrow-raising reference to the “leading global company” that shall not be named, there’s plenty that seems suspect here. When you boil it all down, here’s what’s at the crux of the fight over how we should be labeling GMO foods: Should such labels be developed on the basis of consumer protection, in accordance with the public’s right to know what’s in the food it’s eating, and thus be required on all foods that contain GMO ingredients? Or should these labels be designed as essentially yet another marketing gimmick in the overflowing arsenal of marketing gimmicks employed by food makers, allowing companies to pick and choose which products to slap a GMO-free label on, depending on whether their marketing department thinks said label will boost sales?

According to a recent letter sent to members of Congress by a coalition of more than 300 groups that support mandatory labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients, more than a million Americans have petitioned the FDA—which has jurisdiction over the veracity of a number of food labels—to come up with a federal label identifying products that contain GMOs. So far, the FDA has failed to respond.

Compare that with when a “leading global company” asks the USDA for help developing an arguably pro-industry GMO label, and the department jumps at the chance. It’s galling, but not surprising.

A bill introduced in March by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., would make voluntary labeling the law of the land, superseding state-level mandatory labeling laws such as the one passed in Vermont and set to take effect next year. More than 370 corporations and industry groups (including biotech giants such as Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, and Monsanto, and food makers such as General Mills, ConAgra, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola)—lobbying under the banner Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food—have come out in support of the bill.

It seems there’s a reason these titans of the agri-tech food industry would prefer the USDA over the FDA to implement any type of federal GMO-labeling program.

As Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, told Environment and Energy News recently, “I think [the USDA] would be better suited to deal with inputs into agricultural products than the FDA would be.” As the news site reports, “[Conaway] added that there would be ‘risks’ that FDA would not work in agriculture’s favor, but he declined to elaborate on that point.”

Apparently, another member of the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was a little less circumspect. Environment and Energy News reports, “Peterson is worried that popular opinion might influence FDA more than USDA.”

Heaven forbid that in a democracy, popular opinion should influence any government agency.