When it comes to labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms, the United States and Canada are bucking a worldwide trend. While a growing number of nations in Europe, South America, Asia and the Pacific Rim require GM foods to be labeled, the United States and Canada plan to implement a system of voluntary labeling.
The United States and Canada's position is that gene-altered foods are "substantially equivalent" to conventional ones and do not require labels unless a GM ingredient alters the nutritional content, health benefit or safety of the food.
However, surveys consistently show that U.S. consumers want labeling. The most recent poll by ABCNEWS.com showed that 93 percent of respondents think GM foods should be labeled. A survey last spring by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 75 percent of Americans said it was important for them to know whether a food contained GM ingredients, and 46 percent said it was very important to know. Even a survey by the pro-biotech International Food Information Council found that 58 percent of consumers want labeling.
Hank Jenkins-Smith, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, says the labeling issue is "potentially explosive." "People want the choice. They don't mind taking risks, but they want to be the ones who choose," he says.
Jenkins-Smith and researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, are conducting a two-year study on consumer attitudes toward GM foods.
People Have A Right To Know
Labeling legislation has been introduced at the national and state levels. In 1999, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act (HR 3377). The bill attracted 57 cosponsors but never came up for a vote in the House. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
Kucinich is now rewriting the legislation and plans to reintroduce it this year along with another bill that calls for safety testing of GM foods. Kucinich is confident the bill will receive support. "This issue is gaining a higher profile," he says. "People have a right to know so they can make appropriate choices for their own health."
Kucinich says grass-roots efforts at local natural foods stores to promote the bill, such as distributing postcards addressed to members of Congress and signing petitions, make a difference. "When the bill is introduced and a member of Congress can pull out a stack of postcards, that means something," he says. "Congress responds when people have things to say."
Kucinich is dedicated to getting the bill passed. "We're going to put the bill out and continue our efforts to get it to the American people," he says.
Craig Winters, director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, says the StarLink corn debacle and recent polls showing consumer support for labeling increase the likelihood the bill will pass. In addition, the Consumers Federation of America and the American Association of Retired Persons, a powerful Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, also want GM foods labeled.
At the state level, lawmakers and citizens from Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon have launched GM food-labeling initiatives. In Colorado, state Sen. Ron Tupa, introduced a labeling bill last February that was supported by consumer groups and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Representatives from natural foods retailers Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods and Wild Oats testified in support of the bill at a Senate hearing. The bill did not pass, but Patrick West, director of the Consumer Coalition for Food Labeling, says Tupa will reintroduce the bill in January 2002.
To pass, the bill must pass both the Colorado House and Senate and be signed by the governor. If this effort fails, West says his group will attempt to put its proposal on the state ballot in the 2002 election. The group needs 87,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
West says natural foods stores will be key locations for obtaining the needed signatures. "I think we will get the signatures," he says.
In Massachusetts, Republican state Rep., Karyn Polito, introduced an "Act Relative to Genetically Modified Organisms" earlier this year. The bill would require all products sold in Massachusetts to carry a label informing buyers that the product contains GMOs.
Polito, who says she is neutral in the GMO debate, aims to educate people about the risks and benefits of genetic engineering and work with industry to address their needs. "We're trying to build consensus and believe we will be successful moving our discussion forward," she says. Polito believes Massachusetts, with its progressive reputation, is an ideal place to start such an initiative.
Best Hope In Oregon
According to Winters, Oregon has the best chance to pass a labeling law. State organizers, Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods, need to collect 67,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot in the 2002 election. According to Winters, the group has collected 10,000 signatures so far and has until July 5, 2002, to gather the rest. "They have an excellent chance of getting it on the ballot," says Winters. "They are experienced in working on voter initiatives and have secured some limited funding."
Winters expects the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association and other pro-biotech groups to spend millions of dollars in advertising to defeat the Oregon, Colorado and Massachusetts initiatives. Still, he predicts it is likely to pass, based on strong consumer support for labeling.
Similar ballot initiatives are under way in Florida, Maine and Washington, according to Jeff Peckman, director of the Ballot Initiatives for Good Government Alliance.
Dane Waters, president of the Institute for Initiative and Referendum in Washington, D.C., says state ballot initiatives can impact national policy on GM food labeling.
"Historically, similar groundbreaking initiatives have set a precedent that was followed by major national policy changes like women's right to vote and child labor laws," he says.
In Canada, Liberal Member of Parliament Charles Caccia has introduced a mandatory labeling bill into the Canadian House. A coalition of 80 consumer, environmental and natural foods industry groups support the legislation. In addition, Lawmakers in British Columbia introduced legislation to require mandatory labeling of GM foods sold in the province.
Ken Roseboro publishes The Non-GMO Source, a monthly newsletter that provides information and resources to help companies produce and sell non-GM products. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 40