This article originally ran in the May 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.
New “Right to Know” bills raise the possibility for the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food. How the food industry reacts will impact the direction of the public conversation about genetic engineering.
Vermont’s “Right to Know” bill is one of several of its kind making their way through legislatures in states including Connecticut and California. The bills would require labeling genetically engineered ingredients and, in some cases, would prohibit “all natural” labels on food products containing GMOs. A website organized by backers of the bill can be found at www.vtrighttoknow.org.
On the federal level, H.R.3553, the “Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act” has been bouncing around the House since last December. While the bill has little chance of enactment — govtracker.us gives it a one percent chance of passing — its introduction signals a growing interest in GMOs on the part of consumers as well as the legislators who represent them.
Massachusetts' Valley Advocate reported last month that the Monsanto Company was prepared to sue the state of Vermont over a bill that would require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such. But regardless of the success of these particular bills — or the outcome of the suits that could try to stop them — concern over GMOs is not going to disappear.
The recent kerfuffle over lean beef trimmings (i.e. “pink slime”) demonstrates that consumers are both interested in where their food comes from and more disconnected than ever from the process. Lean beef trimmings and GMOs have been around for over a decade, but the outrage has been all but absent until recently.
The act of eating is an intimate one, perhaps one of the most personal acts in which humans daily engage. Different from choosing an outfit to wear or a car to drive, choosing food means choosing what one will incorporate into one’s own body, and so if consumers seem particularly obsessed with collecting data on their groceries, who can blame them?
The food industry would be wise to educate consumers about the benefits of GMOs instead of blocking the public’s access to information. Critics raise valid concerns about the market saturation of GMOs as well as the punitive actions taken against growers who plant non-GMO seeds but inadvertently grow crops from wind-blown seed from neighboring fields.
But the industry is armed with data of its own, including the fact that rising food costs are mitigated by high-yield GMOs. Additionally, in a world plagued by food insecurity, GMOs may well be vital in attaining a dependable food supply in developing nations.
Arming consumers with the information they need to make educated decisions about the foods they choose to buy could change the direction of this conversation. If the food industry pushes too hard against public disclosure, consumers could come to believe that it has something to hide. Sidestepping this adversarial relationship, food processors should choose the ingredients they believe are right for their products and their consumers and then stand, publicly, behind those choices.