- Several major players in the food space — including industry group the Grocery Manufacturers Association and manufacturers Nestlé and Hershey — filed comments on the proposed genetically modified organism labeling regulations saying that items made with GMO ingredients that have been refined should bear the GMO label, according to a Reuters story and comments from GMA.
- GMA, Nestlé and Hershey all said they want the labeling in order to provide consumers with the clearest transparency about what is in their food. According to GMA, about 90% of the nation's corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are genetically modified. If the products using refined versions of those crops do not have to be labeled as GMO, GMA estimates there will be 78% fewer products being disclosed under the federal law.
- Farmers argue that by the time their products have been refined and processed into food, there is no trace of the modified genes present, so they should be exempt from the labeling requirement.
Concern about ingredients that have been modified — and which some activists claim could be unsafe to eat — have led the drive for GMOs to be labeled. According to the International Food Information Council, nearly half of all consumers avoid food with GMO ingredients to some extent. While scientists have not found any safety concerns in GMO food items, public perception of these ingredients takes precedence. The 2016 mandatory GMO labeling law was passed in order to ensure disclosure of these ingredients, as well as ensure that they are uniformly labeled in every state.
So if transparency and disclosure are king, it makes sense that consumers may feel duped if products that use highly refined GMO ingredients don't have to be labeled. Especially since concern about the ingredients — even if it is not validated by science — is what started the push toward this legislation.
"Consumers want to know what is in their food and beverages and we believe that they deserve transparency. It's at the core of our business," Nestlé spokeswoman Kate Shaw told Reuters in an emailed statement.
Even though farm groups and others maintain that GMO ingredients are safe, putting an extra label on products could bring extra consumer attention. Consumers who don't know much about GMO ingredients may be put off if they see lab-focused terminology like "genetically modified" or "biologically engineered" on a package. Obviously, they want fewer necessary disclosures.
But this is up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the answer is far from easy. The new law defines bioengineered food as an item “(a) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques; and (b) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or not found in nature.” Because refined grains, sugar beets, corn and soy are pulverized, the DNA cannot readily be found.
There are 64 other countries in the world that require GMO labeling, and their stance on refined ingredients is not uniform. European Union countries mandate that these refined ingredients be labeled as GMOs, while Japan — where growing GMO crops is illegal — does not.
In the United States, product transparency is important. It drives sales and builds trust — two things that all brands want. Through their comments, Nestlé, Hershey and GMA want that too. GMA is advocating for any food item with GMO ingredients making up more than 0.9% of its weight having to be labeled as such, setting an easy-to-understand standard.
With 14,007 comments on the proposed rule submitted by the July 3 deadline, it's unclear right now how many commenters even brought up the issue — as well as whether refined ingredients should be labeled. But the final decision isn't a popularity contest. It's up to who makes the most persuasive argument and what kind of industry clout they may have. Nestlé, Hershey and GMA are all heavy hitters, so their opinion should result in careful consideration. It will be interesting to see which direction USDA chooses to go here — and how consumers, manufacturers and farmers will react.