Protecting Health or Spreading Fear? The Battle Over GMO Labeling Goes National

After chefs help block a bill before the U.S. Senate, a Vermont law mandating that products with genetically modified ingredients contain labels will take effect
Protecting Health or Spreading Fear? The Battle Over GMO Labeling Goes National
Chef Tom Colicchio and other members of Food Policy Action argue that food products should carry special labels if they contain GMOs. (Matt Furman)
Mar 30, 2016

Chefs can be a fiery bunch. More than 4,000 of them came together earlier this month, led by Tom Colicchio, to protest a bill before the U.S. Senate that would have allowed the voluntary disclosure of ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in packaged food. Why were they fighting? Because the bill would have prevented states from mandating labels on foods that contain GMOs, something Vermont is poised to begin in July, the first state to do so.

The bill was titled the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (SAFE), but opponents dubbed it the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act (DARK). While it was passed by the House of Representatives and advanced to the Senate floor, the bill faltered in the Senate, failing to obtain the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster.

Colicchio, the chef behind top restaurants Craft, Craftsteak, Colicchio & Sons, Riverpark and Tom Colicchio's Heritage Steak as well as cofounder of Food Policy Action, spoke as the voice for food activists and pro-labeling advocates. "As chefs, we have a fundamental right to know what's in the food we cook and serve to our customers," he stated in a petition opposing the bill. "We urge you to reject any attempt to prevent the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food."

Far from ending the conversation, however, the bill’s defeat has stoked an already contentious debate. And the bill’s backers say the fight isn’t over.

"There haven’t been enough studies"

Large food producers have repeatedly battled efforts to mandate GMO labels, pouring billions of dollars into advertising and lobbying campaigns in several states. The food giants argue that forcing companies to state on labels that a product contains GMOs will spread misinformation and needlessly frighten consumers away from safe packaged foods.

Scientific research offers little evidence that GMOs are, in fact, unsafe. In 2010, the European Commission released findings from more than 500 research groups stating that, "There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms." While there is little mention of government regulation, the study examined a range of considerations that include the traceability of GMOs in food, potential health effects of consuming modified food, crops’ response to genetic transferring and pairing, and the effects of GMO crop growth on biodiversity and sustainability.

But GMO opponents and many in the restaurant industry don’t accept those findings. "There haven’t been enough studies done to prove [GMOs] are safe for the public," argued chef Edward St. Onge, who works at the Vermont steak house Raven’s Den. St. Onge says he’s been keeping an eye on genetically modified foods for the past 30 years. "For all we know, there could be detrimental effects 50 years from now."

Proponents of food that is local, organic or sustainably grown also point out that large food companies don’t have a great track record on healthy food. Surveys show that much of the public believes that GMOs are by definition unnatural. In a move that is sure to appeal to the public mood, companies like Campbell Soup have already issued public statements in support of national GMO labeling under uniform USDA approval.

Regardless of the safety of GMOs, Colicchio and other protestors argue that American consumers have a right to know if genetically modified ingredients are in their food, just as the Food and Drug Administration requires nutritional information on all packaged foods.

Both sides agree that a downside of GMO labeling is a predicted price increase of non-GMO foods. GMO crops have allowed farms to produce food more cheaply by fighting off pests and diseases. While St. Onge argues that labeling laws will drive more consumers to local and healthy foods, he admits those foods will become more expensive. Other chefs in Vermont report that prices for specifically non-GMO foods have already nearly doubled.

"Money’s tight for the majority of Americans. I am as friendly [pricewise] as I can possibly be, and I still get, ‘Wow, you’re really expensive.' It is a concern," said St. Onge. But the price, in his eyes, is worth it.

"Consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing [labels] legislated by the state of Vermont"

On July 1, Vermont will become the first state with mandated GMO labeling. The legislation directly contradicts the findings of the European Commission, stating, "There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods." After a six-month transition period, manufacturers and retailers in Vermont whose products don’t carry labels that state the product was made or partially made "with genetic engineering" can be fined up to $1,000 per day, per product.

And while Vermont is one of the least populated states in the country, its law will have national impact. "We can't label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers," stated General Mills executive Jeff Harmening on a company website. "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."

Companies like Mars and ConAgra followed suit with statements promising nationwide GMO labeling, even as a statement from Mars affirmed, “We firmly believe GM ingredients are safe.” In late March, Kellogg announced it would begin labeling some of its products containing GMO ingredients. For these food giants, a national federal requirement is an increasingly desirable solution in the face of state-by-state labeling requirements, which would likely pose complications and higher costs.

For many restaurant owners in Vermont, the new law shouldn’t change much. "We don't buy much processed food, and even the bread we get is non-GMO," said Henry Bronson, chef and co-owner of Bistro Henry, in Manchester Center. "Consumers, on the other hand, will be presented with enough information to truly baffle them."

While Vermont has been in the limelight because the proposed federal bill would have annulled its pending law, other states are paying close attention. The Center for Food Safety lists 21 states that have introduced bills to require GMO labeling or prohibit genetically modified food altogether. Connecticut and Maine adopted similar labeling standards in 2014, but their mandates only go into effect if states in the surrounding Northeastern region pass similar laws. And they don’t require anything of restaurants specifically.

Michael Boland, owner of Havana Restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine, said he backs labels. "How can we as restaurants not support this? It’s clearly the way things are going," he said. "The science is almost irrelevant. I want to be able to tell my guests exactly what is in the food I am preparing for them."

This debate is not over

While the Senate rejected the SAFE Act, new bills have already been proposed, such as the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act. If that bill passes, food companies would have the choice between an optional symbol or labeling notes marked by an asterisk, parenthesis or catch-all phrase at the end of an ingredient list. Opponents argue that such labeling would be less clear.

For the time being, states are free to move ahead. Back at the Raven’s Den, St. Onge said, "I’m proud of the fact that Vermont is paving the way."

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