Should food containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) be labeled as such?
That’s a simple question with a complex answer. At the center of the debate is the fact that consumers want transparency, as Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, recently told Gannett Company.
"We're in the midst of an area of food democracy the likes of which we've never seen," he says. "People want to know everything about their food, what's in it, who made it, where it's from, how it's made. The politicians who are trying to deny people the right to know about their food are running headlong into this sort of brick wall of opposition."
One of Gannett’s newspapers, the Des Moines Register, is the most recent media outlet to weigh in on the issue, coming to its own firm conclusion that GMO food should be subject to mandatory labeling.
"Corporate America is fighting a losing battle over the GMO issue," concludes the editorial. "Consumers wanted to know — and now product labels tell them — how much sugar is in their foods. Consumers have been pressuring restaurant chains to post the calorie counts for their various products, and those chains are coming around to understand the consumers' wishes. It's the same with the use of GMOs. Congress should set a nationwide standard of disclosure and then let the individual consumers decide whether the presence of GMOs in a product is something that concerns them."
But should letting individuals decide if GMOs are dangerous be a matter of law? John Dillard, an attorney with OFW Law, looked at a piece of Vermont legislation from earlier this year and concluded mandatory labeling could be in violation of 1st Amendment law – in other words, the government could not compel companies to add information because GMOs have not been proven dangerous.
"Vermont has a history of passing labeling legislation that is ultimately rejected by federal courts for violating the First Amendment," he says. "For instance, when the anti-corporate cause du jour was labeling milk that contained rBST hormones, Vermont passed a first-in-the-nation labeling law. However, this law was promptly overturned because the state could not demonstrate that rBST milk differed from conventional milk in terms of health or safety effects, and accordingly, the state had no substantial interest in requiring a label."
Some commodity groups, including the National Corn Growers Association, have stated they support labeling if it is consistent, informative and "eliminates confusion and advances food safety" – and if it’s voluntary, not mandatory.
"America's corn farmers want the same things as families across the country," says NCGA president and Illinois farmer Martin Barbre. "We want to keep families safe and protect our nation's food supply. That is why we believe it is imperative important decisions about our safety and how we label what we eat should remain in the hands of experts, the scientists at the FDA. NCGA supports the Congressmen’s effort to ensure America’s food supply remains safe and America’s consumers have access to clear, consistent information based in reputable science."
Meantime, the environmental advocacy group Center for Food Safety notes that many other countries – including the 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and China – already have GMO labeling laws on the books. Dillard notes that in the United States, much is at stake on both sides of the labeling issue, so progress could be to be at least a little "drawn out."
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