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'Running Scared': Industry's Strategy Wants 'Voluntary' GMO Labeling

Strategy documents reveal food and biotech giants think "soft" federal rules could end battle, but GMO opponents welcome the national conversation, vow fight

- Jon Queally, staff writer

(Photo by Millions Against Monsanto)Seemingly tired of fighting the GMO labeling battle against concerned consumers on a state by state basis, the largest food industry lobbying groups, according to documents obtained by Politico, are now preparing to push for a corporate-friendly set of laws and regulations at the federal level.

With recent and ongoing campaigns by food safety advocates in California, Hawaii, Washington, Connecticut, and other states pushing for clear labeling of food products that contain genetically-modified organisms (called GMOs or GE food), the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is leading the industry with a new federal strategy designed to override the push by states calling for labeling laws.

At the heart of the strategy would be a push to make GMO labeling a "voluntary" and industry-driven effort, which would throw off attempts to mandate the practice.

"Industry is running scared because consumers, armed with the truth about the health and safety risks of GMOs, want laws that are at least as strict as those passed in 60 other countries." –Katherine Paul, Organic Consumers Association

According to Politico:

"[T]he Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such food and beverage leaders as ConAgra, PepsiCo and Kraft... [is] advocating for an industry-friendly, law with a voluntary federal standard — a move that food activists see as a power grab by an industry that has tried to kill GMO labeling initiatives every step of the way.

The most powerful players in the food industry say they are simply trying to find a national solution for GMO labeling, rather than having to navigate a patchwork of dozens of state laws for every packaged food item on the grocery shelf. According to a discussion draft of GMA’s proposed bill obtained by POLITICO, labeling standards would not be mandatory and the industry would submit to more FDA oversight.

The draft provides the first concrete look of what the food industry is asking for from Congress.

The push for a softer national standard on GMO labeling comes as consumer interest in biotech foods has blown up into an intense national conversation, and the food industry is clearly trying to get out ahead of a strong, vocal movement pushing strict labeling requirements in multiple states around the country.

Proponents of GMO labeling say the GMA's strategy is predictable, however, and are readying their own response to the move.

"Since spending millions, some of it illegally, to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington State, the GMA has been hard at work on plans to preempt state and federal mandatory GMO labeling laws," said Katherine Paul, communications director for the Organic Consumers Association, in an email to Common Dreams. "This latest revelation comes as no surprise. Industry is running scared because consumers, armed with the truth about the health and safety risks of GMOs, want laws that are at least as strict as those passed in 60 other countries."

Vowing to counteract the strategy, Paul said her group and their state-level allies "will fight any plans by industry, Congress or the FDA to subvert the democratic process by preempting state GMO labeling laws."

Earlier this year, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), introduced legislation that would make GMO labels mandatory nationwide, but receiving little traction so far in a deeply divided Congress, the bills have gone nowhere. In the absence of a federal policy, labeling activists in the states have been leading the charge, though industry pushback has so far kept the most promising laws (in California and Washington for example) from being adopted.

Speaking with Politico, DeFazio said the GMA and other food industry lobbysists might regret bringing this debate to the national public. Polling on the issue has consistently showed the public favors disclosure about the presence of GMO ingredients in food items.

“This may be actually a misstep by the GMA — to try and proactively prohibit meaningful labeling that may in fact really kindle a much more proactive grass-roots movement on the other side,” DeFazio warned. Referring to the large sums of money industry has spent on state campaigns to beat back public opinion, he added: “If [food industry lobbyists] are going to kindle a national debate, given the polling on this issue, they better be thinking billions [of dollars] instead of tens of millions.”

“If they start to move a bill that does the opposite [of labeling that has been called for by consumers], they may not like the results,” he said.

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