US food manufacturers pushing for federal legislation to stave off threat of state-by-state regulations

US food manufacturers pushing for federal legislation to stave off threat of state-by-state regulations

Having witnessed an unprecedented level of discussion in the US over the past year or so, the labelling of genetically modified foods is set to become an even more hotly and frequently debated subject stateside in the coming year.

The political context for the heightened debate has been a series of moves by individual states to introduce labelling legislation. Some form of GM labelling legislation is currently under consideration in as many as 26 states. The food industry spent some US$70m defeating proposed bills in Washington State and California alone last year. The New Hampshire state legislature is due to vote on a measure next week and a further ballot is also expected relatively soon in Vermont.

GM labelling legislation was actually passed in Maine and Connecticut last year but measures in both states have "trigger clauses" preventing the laws from taking effect until at least four neighbouring states, with a combined population of 20m people, pass similar legislation.

This year, however, will see federal legislation for GM labelling also being debated, and this time it is the pro-GM lobby, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association, the American Frozen Food Institute and the American Bakers Association, which is pushing for the legislation.

With the US food industry so heavily reliant on GM crops - an estimated 90% of commodity crops destined for the US food supply, including soy, sugar beet and feed corn, are genetically modified - the aim is to have legislation at the federal level which would render moot any possible moves at the state level.

While proponents of the new bill will emphasise the importance of having a uniform rather than state-by-state approach to legislation, the legislation would by any objective measure be viewed as more permissive than those being put before state legislatures. For example, the legislation would allow GMO foods to be labelled as "natural".

Louis Finkel, executive vice president of government affairs for the GMA, not surprisingly places the emphasis on the benefits of standardisation. "We should not be making food safety labelling decisions through a patchwork of state laws," he said in a recent interview.

The bill soon to be proposed by the pro-GM lobby will also include a provision making it mandatory for biotech crop developers to notify the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they launch a new GM crop on the market. At present, such notification is only voluntary. In addition, it would give the FDA power to specify "any special labelling" to protect health and safety or to "prevent the label of bioengineered food from being false or misleading."

While the bill would allow food manufacturers to label their food products as "GMO-free" under certain conditions, significantly food manufacturers would not be allowed to imply that a food is more or less safe owing to the absence of GM ingredients.

Given the biotech and food industries' lobbying muscle and political connections, the bill is certain to have some heavyweight political backing in Congress. However, campaigners are also preparing for a lobbying battle on Capitol Hill and also have political support. 

Earlier this month, four Democratic members of Congress joined campaign organisations and more than 200 food companies, including Ben & Jerry's, Nature's Path and Stonyfield Farms,  in signing a letter to the President reminding him of a campaign pledge he made in 2007 to work to have GM foods labelled. 

Speaking to Politico magazine, one of those four, Rep. Peter DeFazio, suggested the industry's attempt to gain the initiative on GM labelling may backfire and only serve to fuel increasing consumer anxiety. "This may be actually a misstep by the GMA — to try and proactively prohibit meaningful labelling that may in fact really kindle a much more proactive grass-roots movement on the other side," he said. Given how opinion polls are now running, he suggested a national debate would mean a lobbying budget of billions of dollars rather than tens of millions. 

Campaigns in individual states would not have gained the traction they have without a considerable degree of consumer anxiety over GM foods. And in that context, the recent actions of two major food manufacturers are highly relevant.

This month, General Mills announced changes to how it sources ingredients for its Original Cheerios cereal brand which will allow the product to be labelled as GM-free. As the principal ingredient in Cheerios is oats, for which there is no GM variant, the change is not the massive undertaking it might be for a cereal based on another crop. For General Mills, this has principally involved sourcing GM-free corn starch and corn syrup. Nevertheless, the fact that the company has deemed the move worth making is significant.

The company has clearly chosen the Cheerios brand for pragmatic reasons, and says it has no plans to convert its other mainstream cereals to GM-free, conceding that the widespread use of GM crops in the US would make such a move "difficult if not impossible". But the company clearly saw there was value in making this move with Cheerios.

Post Foods, meanwhile, is also launching a verified non-GMO Grape Nuts which will be on-shelf this month. In a response to the GMO Inside campaign group, Post Foods pointedly said "we are always listening to our consumers and looking for ways to provide a good variety of products". The company said it was also "exploring some of our other cereals to see if there is potential going forward to add more non-GMO verified products to the Post Foods product line".

Hain Celestial recently stated that being GM-free would be part of the selling proposition for its new acquisition, UK-based Basmati rice brand Tilda, in the US. In this month's just-food interview, Kevin Brennan, CEO of UK-based meat-free specialist Quorn Foods said US retailers viewed Quorn's GM-free status as an opportunity.

The recent moves by Post and General Mills are particularly significant as they come not from the organic or natural sector or from brands which place a particularly strong emphasis on ethical or green values in their marketing. 

Rather, they are both just about as mainstream as one could get. The way General Mills differentiated its latest move from the addition of previous GM-free offerings bears this out. The company said that within its organic range it already offered consumers a "wide range of non-GMO cereals" which are also priced higher than their standard versions. However, the company emphasised that the price of Original Cheerios will remain unchanged.

One undeniable truth is that food companies like Post and General Mills know their customers and have clearly noted consumer apprehension, and, like the skilled marketers they are, are reacting to that concern. However, as an industry they are part of a coalition which will soon be proposing legislation on GM labelling which in essence is relatively permissive.

Some may see these two responses to be odds with one another. As the political debate intensifies, as it certainly will, it will be interesting to see if this apparent contradiction becomes more pronounced.