Many Americans would like to know more about what they eat, including whether the food they purchase contains genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. That desire has sparked ballot initiatives and bitter fights in states across the country. But what a lot of concerned consumers don’t realize is that there is already a way to ensure that the foods they purchase are free of GMOs.
During the Clinton administration, we were responsible for implementing the Organic Foods Production Act. One of the implementation decisions that had to be made about the law after its passage was whether GMOs could be used in organic food. After receiving nearly 300,000 public comments during the rule-making process, we said no. This means that foods certified as organic are also GMO-free.
So, why aren’t more consumers aware of this? Because producers of organic food are, in effect, banned from letting them know.
Personally, neither of us is opposed to the use of GMOs and believe they can address important food and agricultural needs. The public made clear, however, that it didn’t feel such organisms belonged in food with an “organic” label.
For more than a decade, organic farmers, ranchers and food processors have been subject to rigorous annual inspections to ensure they are in compliance with national organic standards. The scrutiny is carried out by agents accredited by a division of the Department of Agriculture. But responsibility for overseeing food labeling lies with another part of the USDA, along with the Food and Drug Administration, and they continue to reject petitions by organic food producers who want to label their products as “GMO-free” or “produced without use of GMOs.”
Absent such labeling, we continue to have expensive election fights. Last month, for example, a ballot initiative in Washington state sought to mandate labeling of food produced using genetic engineering. It was narrowly defeated, but only after months of debate and $30 million of spending by those wishing to sway voters one way or the other.