The big reversal on GMO labeling

The big reversal on GMO labeling

June 10 - Four years ago, a referendum, California Proposition_37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food, was added to the November 2012 ballot. Prop 37, as it was popularly known, asked California voters to decide if the state should institute mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, i.e. foods containing genetically modified ingredients or organisms (GMOs). More specifically, Prop 37required labeling on raw or processed food made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways and prohibited labeling or advertising such food as "natural."

As you may remember, the referendum was defeated despite the fact that its organizers had collected nearly a million signatures, far more than was needed to get the referendum on the ballet. Supporters of Prop 37 included the state’s Democratic Party and its Green Party, consumer organizations such as the Organic Consumers Fund, and many companies that offered organic and/or natural foods, such as Lundberg Family Farms, Nature’s Path, Clif Bar, Amy’s Kitchen, and Annie’s. Collectively these and other contributors devoted $8.7 million to promote passage of the referendum.

The food industry opposed the labeling demand and poured millions of dollars into a "No on 37" campaign. By the time of the November vote, the industry had spent by close to $46 million. That included over $8 million from Monsanto, the company responsible for the majority of genetically modified seeds being used in the U.S. and around the world. DuPont, also a leader in GM seeds, threw in another $5 million and the other biotech companies making GM seeds gave a couple of million dollars each. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the food companies’ trade association, also contributed $2 million and several individual food companies made significant contributions, beginning with over $2 million from PepsiCo and $1.1 million from General Mills.

Supporters of the referendum argued that the large sum spent on advertising to oppose Prop 37 was the reason for its failure to pass. More neutral observers suggest that an equally important factor was that the legislation was badly written and unclear. They agreed with the opponents of Prop 37 that it opened the door to a mountain of unfounded lawsuits against food companies and groceries even if there were no infractions. 

The defeat of Prop 37 did not stop a slew of similar ballot referendums and legislative proposals taking place in other states suggesting that it was only a matter of time before one passed and became law. This was, in fact, the case. In 2014 the Vermont legislature approved a very straightforward GMO labeling law set to go into effect in July 2016.

The legislation was challenged in the courts by the GMA, among others, but with no success. Prompted by constituents in the food industry, the House of Representatives in July 2015 passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. The bill usurped the rights of states to enact labeling laws and was specifically targeted at Vermont’s legislation. But in early 2016 the Senate version of the bill failed to get enough votes, basically killing the effort to undo the Vermont law.

At this point, several of the original opponents of Prop 37 decided it was time to throw in the towel. Campbell Soup, which had invested $500,000 in the "No on 37" campaign, was the first to announce it would add a GMO label to its products. Within a few days it was joined by Mars, which had contributed $376,650 to the campaign; Kellogg, a $790,000 contributor; and ConAgra, which had given $1,176,700 to oppose Prop 37. These companies all announced they would begin GMO labeling.

Del Monte, which had contributed $674,100 to fight Prop 37, took the policy reversal a step further, announcing that it had decided to move away almost entirely from the use of GMO ingredients. Not only will all of its vegetables, fruit cups and most tomato products be non-GMO, so, too, will the added ingredients used as sweeteners. The company indicated that more than 15 products will become non-GMO and be labeled as such.

Pointing the way for the other companies that would follow its lead, Campbell’s insisted that GMOs are safe and that foods derived from crops grown using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods. However, the company issued a statement that read in part: “We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. GMO has evolved to be a top consumer food issue reaching a critical mass of 92% of consumers in favor of putting it on the label.” A sample label was prepared to indicate how Campbell would comply with the Vermont law and any future national legislation. 

Campbell could also have pointed out that not only is there is not great support for GMO labeling, but in fact consumers are increasingly basing their food product purchasing decisions on whether or not there are GMO ingredients present. Packaged Facts research indicates that from 2013 to 2015 the percent of consumers who buy grocery products specifically labeled as non-GMO increased from over 29% to almost 39% while the percent who bought groceries labeled as organic in part to avoid GMO ingredients went from 27% to 35%.

Campbell indicated it would support a national standard for non-GMO claims made on food packaging, noting that a national standard “would better inform consumers and would preempt numerous state labeling efforts, which are incomplete, impractical and confusing.” In deciding to back the labeling legislation Campbell announced it will withdraw from all efforts led by coalitions and groups opposing such measures. It called on all parties involved to come together and help create a workable national labeling plan.

One has to wonder if the Senate had voted to support legislation banning state GMO labeling laws if Campbell and the others that came out for GMO labeling would have done so. By its own admission, Campbell was aware that the vast majority of American consumers want labeling. It must also be aware that the percent of consumers actively seeking out non-GMO products is steadily increasing.

Perhaps the real issue is transparency. Americans seem to have lost their trust in large institutions: government, banks, and corporations. By fighting against GMO labeling, the food industry may have given more credibility to the notion that something is wrong with GMO ingredients than the anti-GMO forces were able to do. The companies that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting Prop 37 and the state-by-state efforts that followed might have done better for themselves with consumers by going along with GMO labeling four years ago when it would have seemed more credible for them to say, “GMOs are safe but we’re happy to give you what you want.”

-- By Howard Waxman