Industry News / R&D / Food Safety

USDA Secretary to Convene Meeting about GMO Labeling in January

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Dec 21, 2015

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says there's growing urgency to reach a compromise with the genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling law, and he's concerned about "chaos in the market" if more states implement labeling laws with differing provisions, the Des Moines Register reported last week. The Agriculture Department will summon food industry members, consumer groups and other stakeholders early next month to debate how to label products containing GMOs and try to resolve the contentious issue.

Vilsack says if Vermont's initiative withstands a legal challenge, proponents say it could give momentum to similar measures being considered in more than a dozen other states. "I’m going to challenge them to get this thing fixed," he says. "I would like to avoid making food more expensive." Specifically who will be invited to the meeting hasn't yet been revealed.

Vilsack is concerned about what will happen if more states implement labeling laws with differing provisions. "That will cost the industry a substantial amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, and it will ultimately end up costing the consumer" via higher prices, he adds.

GMO labeling has put consumer groups against major food and agribusiness companies. Both sides agree on the need for labeling of genetically engineered foods, but they have failed to agree on how, and on whether the labeling should be mandatory or voluntary. Nearly 80 percent of packaged foods may contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Biotech crops are popular in rural America, too, with more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans coming from the seeds.

Some lawmakers hoped to include a ban on state labeling laws in a $1.1-trillion spending package, but it was left out of the 2,009-page bill. Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, reportedly called that a missed opportunity by Congress, while expressing optimism over the meeting next month. "Given there is so much common ground, we welcome Secretary Vilsack’s willingness to bring parties together in January to forge a compromise that Congress could pass as soon as possible," she said.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been mulling GMO labeling legislation for years, but the bills have failed to gain much traction. A few House and Senate Republicans have pledged to focus again next year on legislation preventing states from enacting GMO labeling laws. But some senators say there isn't enough support in the Senate.

Advocates of mandatory labeling insists consumers have a right to know what's in the food they eat and say a majority of Americans want to know if their food contains GMO ingredients.