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Mandating GMO labels

By Staff | Jun 21, 2014

Consumers today are asking more questions about food and food safety, leading to an avalanche of concerns about genetically modified products and their role in the market place.

A webinar presented recently by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology – a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Ames – dissected the issue of mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified products and the effects it would have on consumers. Results were printed in a paper titled, “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States,” which was published this past April.

In the end, according to the CAST presentation, there is no scientific data to prove any differences between foods manufactured with non-GE (genetically engineered) products versus those made with GE commodities. In fact, they agreed mandatory labeling of foods containing GEs could have a costly impact on consumers, primarily low-income consumers who often cannot afford to purchase organic foods or foods that are otherwise more expensive.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, extension specialist in Animal Genomics and Biotechnology in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California at Davis, said roughly 169 million acres-or about half of the land used for crops in the U.S. – have been planted to GE crops, and worldwide there are 18 million farmers who have adopted this technology. She said with that technology the use of insecticide has decreased 10-fold in the U.S. since the introduction of Bt crops, along with less toxic herbicides and the adoption of no-till technology.

“As a result of this, as high as 85 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically engineered ingredients,” she said. “It’s an important distinction when talking about the U.S. because it’s so prevalently used in our agricultural production system that if we talk about trying to label everything that contains GE ingredients-and you’ve got over 90 percent adoption in some major crops-you’re talking about a very large portion of the food supply that potentially contains GE ingredients.”

Van Eenennaam said at least 25 states are considering mandatory labeling of foods containing GE products. Such an initiative failed in California in 2012, as well as in Washington state. Voters in Vermont did pass the mandatory labeling initiative recently.

Van Eenennaam said three main themes fuel the mandatory labeling issue, including public opinion, people’s right to know and consumer choice.

“U.S. consumers who want to avoid GE products already have that choice available through voluntary non-GMO and organic labeling,” she said. “In countries that have implemented mandatory GE labeling, GE products have generally been removed from the market, so choice has been reduced.”

Van Eenennaam said some statements suggest that the intent to label is part of a concern from some to remove GE organisms from the food chain altogether.

Van Eenennaam encouraged consumers to make their decisions based on scientific studies only, which say GE products are extensively tested and pose no new or different risks to food safety. She added that all products on the market today that contain GE products have been through an FDA-led pre-market safety evaluation.

“The FDA has stated that production methods or processes that create no material differences in products require no special labeling, and they say they have no basis for finding that GE foods differ from any other foods in any meaningful or uniform way,” said Van Eenennaam.

She added that while opponents suggest the manipulation of genes in a lab is a material difference, the science says there is no difference in those end products.

The FDA, she said, allows voluntary labeling as long as it is not false or misleading. An example of misleading includes a label which says it’s “GMO-Free,” when in fact there are no possibilities of GMOs being introduced into that particular kind of food or drink.

She produced a 2014 study from Cornell University which said mandatory labeling would cost a New York family of four around $500 per year, a Washington state family about $490 per year a California family up to $401 per year.

She said consumer surveys and experiences in Europe suggest the products most likely to be dropped are the labeled ones, resulting in a system (compared to today) with higher costs due to more costly non-GE ingredients, and different – but no real increase in – consumer choices.

Van Eenennaam said some of the economic issues relating to mandatory labeling include the higher cost of non-GE foods, costs of alternative purity standards and tolerances (the amount of GE ingredients that can be found in non-GE foods); costs of mandatory GE labels-including an estimation of the share of the food market that might become non-GE and an estimation of the costs that would be incurred to procure ingredients and reformulate products should that become necessary.

She said there would also be potential changes in the costs of mandatory labeling, because in some states there is a clause that effectively introduces a time limit allowing products containing less than 0.9 percent GE content to be exempt from labeling until July 1, 2019. Re-evaluation would occur after that date.

She said the cost of implications of labeling exemptions will also be a factor, with many of the state labeling bills containing exemptions for different categories of food, including milk, meat and eggs from animals that have eaten GE feed. There would also be alcohol, restaurant meals, organic food-and the implementation costs of GE labeling will be affected by which of these are exempt. Costs for testing to certify non-GE products as such would also increase and be passed on to the consumer.

Van Eenennaam said when people are asked about whether or not they would like to see more labeling, they tend to say yes, but the cost implications are not usually part of the question. She said cost implications will be determined by the way food manufacturers respond to mandatory labeling-whether they would need to expand their current labels or reformulate their product altogether.

She said different laws between states makes it difficult for agriculture to actively oppose mandatory labeling, but she said the question is not necessarily the composition of the end product, but the process used in the production of products.

“Some countries have labeling laws based on whether you can test for the presence of GE DNA or protein in the product,” she said, adding that tracking the process itself is hard to govern because detailed supply chain records need to be kept.

She also said it’s hard to enforce because there’s no way to test whether or not a product contains (GE) ingredients (since, compositionally, both end products are the same), so there’s potential for cheating because of it.

The CAST paper (number “54″ for searching purposes) can be downloaded by going to www.cast-science.org.

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