The Food Industry's New Answer to GMO Labeling: Make It Voluntary

It wasn’t too long ago that opponents of genetically modified foods in the U.S. felt a bit like baseball fanatics in France: All the action was taking place on the other side of the pond.

No more.

Of late, opponents of biotech food in the U.S. have notched a series of victories, from industry and state initiatives requiring labeling of genetically modified foods to General Mills’ announcement earlier this year that Cheerios will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients.

The accelerating debate hasn’t gone unnoticed by the food industry. In its most recent effort, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food and beverage companies, has drafted a proposed bill that calls for the Food and Drug Administration to develop a voluntary federal labeling standard for genetically modified food, a measure that would effectively quash state labeling efforts, according to Politico.

In addition, the Grocery Manufacturers are asking the FDA to come up with a clear-cut definition of “natural,” one that they believe should include genetically modified foods. “There is nothing unnatural about a GMO,” says Louis Finkel, the trade group’s executive vice president of government affairs. “It’s a seed. It’s a plant. It grows.”

Not everyone agrees. “Natural” is a popular but vague label that nonetheless suggests simple and minimally processed food. The term is so mushy that it has spawned lawsuits against food companies claiming their “natural” products are anything but; last year, Connecticut passed legislation that made it illegal to label foods containing biotech ingredients as “natural.”

As for the bill, the industry frames it as a way to avoid a patchwork of state laws and proposals. Better, it contends, to let experts at the FDA decide on a uniform system of voluntary language and labels for foods that don’t contain GMOs.

Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, says the food industry’s attempts to sidestep any kind of mandatory GMO-labeling laws smack of desperation and, in the case of its natural foods claim, border on the bizarre. “Clearly we have gone through the looking glass,” Faber says.

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