You’ll soon know whether many of the packaged foods you buy contain ingredients derived from genetically modified plants, such as soybeans and corn.
Over the past week or so, big companies including General Mills, Mars and Kellogg have announced plans to label such products – even though they still don’t think it’s a good idea.
The reason, in a word, is Vermont. The tiny state has boxed big food companies into a corner. Two years ago, the state passed legislation requiring mandatory labeling.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has fought back against the law, both in court and in Congress, but so far it’s been unsuccessful.
Last week, as we reported, Congress failed to pass an industry-supported measure that would have created a voluntary national standard for labeling — and also would have preempted Vermont’s law. Which means for now, food industry giants still face a July 1 deadline to comply with the state’s labeling mandate.
And since food companies can’t create different packaging just for Vermont, it appears that the tiniest of states has created a labeling standard that will go into effect nationwide.
This statement, from General Mills’ Jeff Harmening, sums it up:
“Vermont state law requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines,” Harmening wrote on the General Mills blogs.
“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,” explains Harmening.
So, as a 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,” he concludes.
Chocolate giant Mars struck a similar tone in its announcement: “To comply with [the Vermont] law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide,” the company statement says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require such labels because – as this guidance document explains – the agency has determined that the nutritional quality and safety of GMO ingredients, such as corn starch or soybean oil, are no different from the same ingredients derived from conventional crops.
According to Mars, “we firmly believe GM ingredients are safe.” But consumer expectations are changing. “We aim to deliver products that match the different tastes, preferences and perceptions of consumers,” the Mars statement says.
According to a 2015 poll, two-thirds of Americans support labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.
“Consumers are pushing for more transparency,” food industry analyst Jack Russo told us. Earlier this year, the Campbell Soup Co. acknowledged this when it became the first major food company to switch its position and come out in support of mandatory GMO labels.
The food industry overall is still hoping that the federal government will step in.
“We continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs to avoid a confusing patchwork of state-by-state rules,” wrote Paul Norman, president of Kellogg North America in an emailed statement.
But it’s clear that companies can no longer wait for this federal action. “The horse [is] out the barn,” says attorney David Wallace, of the firm Herbert Smith Freehills, who specializes in food issues. Companies are already preparing new labels to begin hitting store shelves in a few weeks.
“Companies had no choice. … They’ve been making plans for this. They had to,” explains Wallace.
As a result, both sides in the debate over GMO labeling now will learn the answer to a question that many have posed over the past 20 years: How will consumers react to a label that says “produced with genetic engineering?”
Food companies have argued that such a label will scare consumers away, because they’ll see it – incorrectly – as a warning. If it has that effect, companies will react by removing genetically modified ingredients from their products. In fact, food companies see the labeling campaign as a veiled attempt to drive genetically engineered crops out of agriculture.
Privately, however, many companies are hoping that consumers will disregard those labels and continue to buy the same products as always. Consumers who are motivated to avoid GMOs may be doing that already, by buying organic or non-GMO products.
If that’s the case, those GMO labels will turn out to be just extra words on the package.