Comment: Why USDA action on GMOs could block mandatory labelling
SunOpta seeks GMO-free label for soya beans, corn
The labelling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products is a massive hot potato in the US. Not least because states like Vermont are attempting to push through mandatory labelling – something staunchly opposed by much of the food industry. The US Department of Agriculture entered the fray when it revealed the development of a certification and labelling scheme for GMOs under its existing Process Verified Program. Could this help stave off compulsory labels?
A "leading global company" recently approached the US Department of Agriculture to request GMO-free certification for soya bean and corn crops under the existing Process Verified Program. The company has since been identified by The New York Times as Canada-based natural and organic food group SunOpta.
The Process Verified scheme, overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Service, aims to provide consumers with reassurance marketing claims have been verified by an independent third party. As part of the process, the AMS audits more than US$150bn agricultural crops each year as companies voluntarily apply for approval by the USDA and then purchase a "USDA Process Verified" label to place on their products.
The AMS responded to SunOpta's request by developing testing and verification processes to certify that products are not genetically engineered. The result is the first Process Verified claim for non-GMO foods.
In an internal memo, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted the benefits the voluntary labelling system offers both consumers and food companies. "Today’s label-conscious consumers often rely on labels to get information about their food. At the same time, producers use verified labels and claims to help distinguish their products in the marketplace," he wrote.
The USDA process verified label enables companies to stand out from the competition, Vilsack continued. He says other companies are "already lining up" to take advantage of this service.
This should come as little surprise. With rising demand for GMO-free certification, a reflection of widespread and growing consumer desire to purchase products that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, a USDA-certified standard makes a lot of sense for food manufacturers. Taken at face value, USDA certification represents an effective marketing tool.
Beyond this, the involvement of the USDA comes at a crucial juncture in the fight over GMO labelling. Much of the food sector has consistently backed a voluntary approach versus mandatory GMO labelling requirements that some states are trying to push through. While there are some notable exceptions – such as Unilever's Ben and Jerry's ice cream business – US food companies have declined to comment on the issue specifically while industry organisations to whom they are paid up members campaign tirelessly against state regulations. The USDA's intervention must be viewed in the context of this debate.
A bill is currently working its way through Congress that could see the USDA create its own fully-fledged non-GMO certification programme and corresponding non-GMO label, H.R. 1599. This does not, however, represent a tightening of GMO labelling regulations. The bill, sponsored by Republican Mike Pompeo, takes a voluntary approach to GMO labelling and, activists claim, is designed to water down and undermine proposals currently being considered by various state authorities.
Vermont is the state where the most notable progress has been made on mandatory GMO labelling. Legislators are slowly but surely making progress towards the implementation of labelling requirements – due to come into effect in July 2016. For its part, food industry bodies are fighting the state every step of the way.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has been a vocal critic of state-by-state labelling requirements and continues to repeatedly challenge Vermont's legislation in the courts. "If this law is allowed to go into effect, it will disrupt food supply chains, confuse consumers and lead to higher food costs," Pamela Bailey, president of GMA, has argued.
While the war is far from over, to date, most of the courtroom battles have gone in favour of Vermont. This makes the enactment of voluntary federal labelling requirements even more pressing, Bailey argues. "Congress should pass the voluntary uniform GMO labelling bill quickly and federally pre-empt state mandatory GMO laws," she insists.
With the food sector gearing up for a battle to stave off mandatory labelling, the implementation of a voluntary USDA certification scheme – albeit one introduced under its current auspices – is more than a marketing tool. It represents an opportunity for business to undermine calls for mandatory labelling and further the argument for voluntary USDA-overseen federal legislation.
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