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Editor's Plate: Refusing to Label GMOs is Like Saying ' None of Your Business!'

April 19, 2016
Big Food is losing the battle over GMO labeling, so embrace the transparency.

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Looking someone in the eye, especially a customer or someone you want to do business with or have a relationship with, and saying “That’s none of your business” is a contemptuous thing to do. But that’s exactly what the food and beverage industry has been telling consumers in the debate over labeling genetically engineered ingredients (genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).

Sure you’ve couched it in benign, even benevolent, terms. That every respectable scientific organization has found GMOs to be safe. That the average American family would pay hundreds of dollars more a year for their food. That genetically engineered Golden Rice could save 670,000 children a year from dying of vitamin A deficiency.

I believe all that, too. But I, for one, want to know what’s in my food. Are you saying it’s none of my business?

Facts like those should be promoted. But shutting down discussion with “It’s none of your business” is not the way to regain the public’s trust – which really is the bigger issue, and one we’ve been writing about a lot lately.

The tide on this issue clearly is turning, but Big Food and its supporters in Congress want to throw consumers a genetically/politically engineered bone and make labeling voluntary or bury the declaration on some webpage in the ether, with a thousand other facts – mostly marketing messages – about this wonderful product you’ve just scanned with your QR code reader.

“Contains genetically engineered ingredients.” There, I said it, and the world did not come to an end. Campbell Soup has begun doing essentially the same thing, and I bet that big building in Camden, N.J., still stands.

The past month saw some chinks in the anti-labeling armor. First, a Senate bill that would have made GMO labeling voluntary failed to make it to a vote. Between Congress going back to square one and that Vermont clock ticking, some big food companies saw either the light or the writing on the wall.

First General Mills, then Mars, then Kellogg said they would begin labeling products. But their announcements lacked warmth and/or conviction. They ranged from the lukewarm:

“Kellogg believes in transparency and that people should know what’s in their food…”

To the non-committal:

“To comply with that [Vermont] law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling…”

To the passive aggressive:

“The result: Consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont” – from General Mills.

Big Food doesn’t do itself any favors when its lobbying arm, Grocery Manufacturers Association, gets told by a Washington state judge it violated campaign law in lobbying against a GMO labeling referendum in 2013.

The uproar was just as bad back in 1994 when the Nutrition Facts panel was forced on the food industry by that evil FDA commissioner David Kessler. Today, we all know how worthless and costly that fiasco has been (I’m being ironic here). I wonder who owns the dubious distinction of having the first product recall made public? Nowadays, not a day goes by without a recall, most of them involving some harmless mistake. The consuming public is used to them. But expects them.

That will be the experience with GMO labeling. Some consumers will be shocked at the ubiquity of GMOs. Others won’t be. Some – I think very few – will avoid products with genetically engineered ingredients – most of them already do. But the vast, vast majority, after thinking about it for a minute, will conclude: “I’ve been eating GMO Oreos for 50 years, they haven’t hurt me and they’re tastier than the other brands. I’m sticking with my Oreos.”

So maybe there will be a little bump in the road. But it may turn the tide in the bigger battle, Big Food’s battle to regain consumers’ trust. Labeling GMOs is not only the right thing to do, in the long run it will be the smart thing to do.

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