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Inside Washington: GMO meeting yields no consensus

GMO in corn
Mandatory labeling supporters say only solution is on-package disclosure of GMOs.

With the implementation looming of a Vermont law on labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the stakes were high for two meetings recently hosted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to bring together different sides of the GMO labeling debate. The hope was to find a solution that would provide consumers with the information they seek while not stigmatizing biotechnology or placing undue cost burdens on producers and consumers.   

However, in the end, there was not enough common ground among leaders from both sides of the issue to come out with a GMO labeling proposal everyone could agreed upon.

In the room for one camp were: Tara Cook-Littman, founder of GMO-Free Connecticut; Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It; Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for Environmental Working Group; Chris Miller, social mission activism manager for Ben & Jerry’s, and David Bronner, cosmic engagement officer for Bronner’s Soaps.

Among the industry members were: Randy Russell, president of the Russell Group, representing the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA); J.P. Bilbrey, chairman and chief executive officer of Hershey Co. and chairman of GMA’s board of directors; Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Steve Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Assn., and Paul Grimwood, president and CEO of Nestle USA.

Last summer, the House passed a bill creating a uniform national voluntary food labeling standard and set up the U.S. Department of Agriculture to oversee a certified “GMO-free” label, similar to what it does for organic foods.

Although details from the meeting were kept hush-hush, there was some discussion that a potential solution could include a mandatory system of disclosure using QR codes – likely based on the food industry’s SmartLabel program.

“We are thankful to Secretary Vilsack for the time he spent with us, but in the end, there was not enough common ground to emerge from that room with a GMO labeling proposal agreed upon by leaders from both camps. Our request is simple: On-package disclosure of GMOs. We want the same rights that the citizens of 64 other countries already enjoy, and with Vermont implementing (its GMO labeling law) in July, we will not accept any federal law that does not meet or exceed the standards being set by the states,” Cook-Littman said in a blog post.

So, as it appears from her comments, those seeking mandatory labeling do not plan to back down. However, Cook-Littman did exit the meetings knowing that the only thing standing between passage of the House version is a number of Senate Democrats.

“Make no mistake about it: While we are very close to winning this fight, we are also on the verge of losing it,” Cook-Littman said.  

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