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Major food companies move to label GMOsMajor food companies move to label GMOs

Food industry continues to state uniform, national standard needed from Congress.

Jacqui Fatka

March 24, 2016

4 Min Read
Major food companies move to label GMOs

The Senate failed to advance legislation ahead of its April recess to apply a uniform food labeling standard for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now, food companies are being forced to make major decisions on how to comply with Vermont’s labeling law, which goes into effect July 1.

In recent days, announcements have come down from Kellogg’s, General Mills and Mars that they will begin labeling their products nationwide in order to comply with Vermont’s law.

All Mars U.S. human food products that contain GMO ingredients will be labeled as such. As provided for in the Vermont law, relevant products will include a label stating “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering.” Currently, the wording is on the back of the package, alongside ingredients, Jonathan Mudd, global director of media relations for Mars, said.

Jeff Harmening, executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills, said, “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply will not do that. The result: Consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products."

In a statement, Kellogg North American president Paul Norman said the company will begin to start labeling some of its products nationwide for the presence of GMOs beginning in mid- to late-April. “We chose nationwide labeling because a special label for Vermont would be logistically unmanageable and even more costly for us and consumers,” he said.

The food industry and the broad Safe Affordable Food Coalition has been asking the Senate to step up to help pass voluntary, uniform and science-based standards for GMO food labeling ahead of the Senate recess in April. “What has happened in the time since the Senate blocked the vote is what should have been expected: Companies are making decisions on what they have to do,” explained Roger Lowe, executive vice president of strategic communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA).

These food companies, which include some of the largest ones nationally, felt that they could not risk the fine of $1,000 per day per SKU for an improperly labeled item, Lowe said.

He added that there could be long-term repercussions if consumers start to stigmatize those products with a label, and companies face a real risk of having to reformulate to not use GMO ingredients.

National solution needed

GMA said one small state’s law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country. Although food companies are looking to disclose the genetically engineered ingredient information, they’re not giving up their call for a voluntary, uniform approach. Previously, when Campbell’s Soup Co. decided to label all of its products, it said it would no longer lobby for a voluntary solution.

Norman noted that Kellogg’s “will continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs. In fact, we believe an agreement on one is achievable.”

He also said the company believes that the food industry should move beyond a debate about labeling and instead engage in a more constructive dialogue about the important role biotechnology can play in the future of food and in feeding a growing population around the world.

Lowe said a lawsuit challenging Vermont’s law currently is in the federal court of appeals. “The best and most realistic option to have an action that stops Vermont law is through congressional action,” he said.

Confusion isn’t going away

Three states have passed GMO labeling laws — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — and 20 other state legislatures are now considering their own labeling bills. Vermont’s law will be the first to be enforced this July.

A closer look at just these three laws demonstrates the confusion that awaits farmers, manufacturers, retailers and shoppers trying to navigate a state-by-state patchwork approach to food labeling, the Safe Affordable Food Coalition warned.

For example, the three states have unique exemptions. Vermont’s law includes language requiring the state’s attorney general to produce a report determining whether milk and milk products should be labeled, while Maine and Connecticut’s laws are silent on that point. Connecticut and Vermont include exemptions for processing aids used in cheese-making and maple syrup production; Maine does not. Dietary supplements are exempt from the Vermont law, but not in Connecticut and Maine.

The three states use different definitions. They even define “food” differently. Vermont defines food as intended for human consumption, while Connecticut includes such items as chewing gum. Maine’s law includes a definition only for medical food.

The states also take unique approaches to how food should be labeled. Vermont’s law includes requirements for three different labels: “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” and “may be produced with genetic engineering.” Maine and Connecticut only have one label: “produced with genetic engineering.”

Vermont, Maine and Connecticut show the inherent problems with a state-by-state approach to food labeling.

“Consumers will be left confused, not informed, while the struggle for farmers and manufacturers to comply with these different laws will inevitably raise the price of food,” the coalition said.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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