Connecticut and Maine have both passed laws requiring labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, although the laws won’t go into effect until neighboring states pass similar labeling laws. All told, this year more than half the states considered some sort of GMO labeling measure. Leaders on both sides of this food fight have vowed to carry on.
We believe that much of the energy around GMO food labeling would dissipate if the federal government honored the original deal we struck on organic food and allowed producers to label their products as GMO-free.
Resistance by the USDA seems especially inconsistent, given that one branch of the agency enforces the organic rule, including the GMO prohibition, while down the hall, another rejects labels submitted by organic companies.
For many years, the agency said this was because it had no way to verify such claims. Thanks to Secretary Tom Vilsack, who issued a memorandum this year directing all USDA agencies to recognize the department’s organic standards, the verification objections are dying down.
But now there is debate over what a label should say. The FDA published draft guidance on voluntary GMO labeling in 2001 but has never completed its document, leaving the organic industry in limbo. Recently, the USDA has indicated a willingness to consider “non-GE” as a potential label claim. That is the term preferred by the biotechnology industry, but it is unfamiliar to the vast majority of consumers.
Another impediment to labeling cited by regulators is the fact that there are trace amounts of GMOs in the environment, which makes producing an absolutely pure GMO-free food product challenging. But this is reason for industry and government to work harder to find ways to prevent cross-contamination of crops, not sufficient justification to reject GMO-free labels.