(Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee)
How much should food companies have to tell you about the genetic makeup of their products?  A bill being heard in the General Assembly Thursday would create a voluntary program for labeling genetically-modified foods.  And some in Colorado are hoping  to put the issue on the ballot.  Many states have efforts like this, and that has some searching for a national solution.  

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Last week, one of the leaders of the push to require food companies disclose their genetically-modified ingredients to the public was hanging out in a somewhat unsual place: that epicenter of agricultural heritage, the National Western Stock Show. 

Past the big outdoor barbecue, and down the hall from the spanking new John Deere tractors, next to booths hawking cowboy hats and Rock Art, entrepreneur Larry Cooper was hawking organic tea and coffee to the crowds of strolling visitors.

In the last few years, Cooper's become increasingly worried about how frequently much of the food supply includes ingredients with some genetic tinkering.

"When I saw what was in a lot of the food I was eating and serving my grandkids I didn't want to give that to them anymore. But I couldn't identify it because it's not labeled," said Cooper.

Cooper is one of the organizers of Right to Know Colorado. The group is currently gathering signatures to put a mandatory labeling initiative on this fall's ballot.

"It's simply a right to know what's in our food supply," said Cooper about the measure.  He points out it wouldn't restrict any company from using GMO ingredients.

Similar ballot measures were narrowly defeated in Washington in 2013 and California in 2012, after the food industry spent more than seventy million dollars in opposition. Right to Know Colorado is counting on this state's famously health conscious residents being more receptive to the idea.

But singling out GMO ingredients for labeling strikes many in agriculture as absurd.

"In some sense, much ado about nothing," said Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and a rancher in the San Luis Valley.  "Science and certainly many important agencies have said there's no chemical difference, there's no nutritional difference [between GMO and non-GMO foods].  There's no difference that really is worthy of a separate label.”

Opponents of mandatory GMO labeling also argue that the time and effort food producers will have to put in to disclosing all their ingredients will eventual drive up the cost of their products.

A bill to require GMOs be labeled died during its first hearing in the state legislature last year, and a new effort to institute a voluntary program only has one sponsor. But the issue in general is on the minds of many lawmakers. 

"It's definitely something I hear a lot, especially as a new parent. I think a lot of parents with kids get concerned," said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino [D-Denver].

Ferrandino calls the entire issue of GMOs "very nuanced."

"It's probably better done through a legislative process, where everyone [can] come and have a full debate about it, then doing it at the ballot box," he said.

Taking the fight to Washington.

Colorado's bill and ballot measure put it in good company. Across the country, two dozen states are considering various measures to label genetically modified foods.  This piecemeal approach has the food industry and GMO opponents fighting on a lot of fronts.  Players on boths sides want to settle the issue once and for all, through federal action.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents some three hundred food companies, is floating a proposal on Capitol Hill to make create a voluntary GMO labeling program.  And in order to reassure consumers, it would also require food manufacturers to report any new genetically modified ingredients to the Food and Drug Administration. The group has draft language for a bill, but has yet to find a sponsor.

According to GMA lobbyist Louis Finkel, mandatory label information should be reserved for reporting health, safety, and nutrition information.

"Any other mandatory label would just be confusing and misleading," said Finkel.

While Finkel denies that his organization is trying to do an end run around state policies, its proposal, if passed, would supercede any stronger labeling requirement passed by a state.

“We shouldn’t be making food safety and labeling decisions through political campaigns on a state-by-state basis," said Finkel.  "All Americans deserve to have a uniform system that they can rely on that’s based on sound science and based on our preeminent food safety authority, which is the FDA.”

But the Grocery Association's efforts are raising hackles among those who believe the federal government should be doing more to disclose genetically modified ingredients to consumers.  Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, a Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to mandate GMO labelling.  He argues the policy could actually drive more business to the organic and natural food companies in his Boulder district if their competitors had to slap ‘GMO’ on their labels.

“Because there are consumers that are willing to pay a premium for non-GMO food and that premium is lost for the company selling it without any kind of labeling mechanism," said Polis.

In spite of all the money being spent by both the food industry and organic companies trying to get a federal answer to the question of GMO labeling, many lawmakers would be happy to leave it in the hands of the states. Colorado Representative Mike Coffman, a Republican, says this is a consumer choice issue. He predicts the marketplace, not lawmakers or lobbyists, will be ultimate arbiter in this battle.

“Clearly if consumers demand it, I think that it ought to be a part of product labeling for any food processor,” said Coffman.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Right to Know Colorado is currently gathering signatures for its ballot initiative. The group is not yet at that stage of the process.]

Washington correspondant Matt Laslo contributed to this report.