Lawmakers Question Tech Solution to Consumer Demand for GMO Labels
The GMO labeling law passed by the Vermont state legislature in 2014 will go into effect on July 1, beginning what could become a new era of mandatory labeling for foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Other states that have passed similar laws, such as Connecticut, are waiting for neighboring states to do so as well before they enact labeling requirements. But tiny Vermont—population 626,500—could finally force some sort of action from the food industry, which has fought hard and long against mandatory labeling.
But rather than slapping “Made With GMOs” on products, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a leading trade group, wants to include new information about allergens, ingredient sourcing, GMOs, and other super-consumer-type data in a bar code. Want to know more about a product? With the GMA’s SmartLabel, consumers can simply scan the data-packed bar code with their smartphone. The rumor is that a similar tech solution to labeling has been floated in the closed-door meetings being held between industry leaders and the USDA. (Secretary Tom Vilsack is trying to hash out a compromise on GMO labeling before the Vermont law is implemented.) But Bernie Sanders, the state’s U.S. senator and a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, and five fellow Senate Democrats are questioning the tech solution favored by the food industry.
“While we recognize that the companies committed to this initiative are taking a step toward supplying consumers with the information that they deserve to have access to, we are troubled that this initiative may have significant anti-consumer loopholes,” the group wrote in a letter to the GMA. “We worry that this initiative will instead make it more difficult for consumers to learn basic information about the food products they are buying, such as whether a product contains a specific allergen or whether the product uses genetically engineered ingredients.”
The group—which includes Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.—points out that per Pew Research, only 68 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of consumers say they support GMO labeling. The idea behind the mandatory label is that all consumers have the right to know, not just the ones willing or able to scan bar codes in the supermarket aisles. The GMA has yet to respond to the senators’ letter.
But the SmartLabel has a lot of industry muscle behind it, including more than 30 food and beverage companies, such as ConAgra, General Mills, and Unilever. According to GMA, 75 percent of consumers said they would seek out additional information made available through a bar code, “showing that the program will meet a consumer desire for more product information,” as the December press release announcing the SmartLabel read.
Some companies, however, are beginning to yield to consumer demand and are prepared to roll out products nationwide that are labeled in accordance with the Vermont law. Campbell’s Soup Company announced earlier this month that it was embracing mandatory labeling. The new language looks less like a red flag than the entrenched battle of labeling might have you believe. The back of the can reads, “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about GMO ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com,” where additional details on sourcing and production can be found.