Thousands of products in the typical American grocery store, from cereals to corn chips, contain genetically modified ingredients. But the average shopper wouldn't know it from their labels.
Many companies in the food and biotechnology industry, including Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co., want to keep it that way. But they'll have to fend off a growing push for labels on genetically modified products that's gaining traction in Washington and state capitals.
At least 18 states are now considering laws that would make the labels mandatory, including Illinois and California, the country's biggest market. Earlier this year, pro-labeling advocates marched from New York to Washington. Late last fall, about 500 groups, including some of the country's biggest consumer organizations, banded together as the Just Label It campaign. Also last fall, the Washington-based Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calling for the agency to require labels. As of this week, the petition had 850,000 signatures of support, the most ever for a federal food petition.
“Fifty countries have mandatory labeling. We're one of the only developed countries that doesn't. GMOs are labeled in China, Russia. Why would consumers in those countries have this information and we not have it here?” said Megan Westgate, executive director of the the Non-GMO Project, a group that verifies and labels products as free of genetically altered ingredients. “It feels like we're at this tipping point where a lot more Americans are concerned about this.”
This apparent momentum in the pro-labeling movement has food and biotechnology companies, including Monsanto, watching closely. In the European Union, where labels are required, some manufacturers have started using non-GM ingredients to avoid labels that, warranted or not, raise red flags for some consumers. That has lead to diminished interest in genetically modified crops there.
“This is just part and parcel of a campaign to reduce the technology,” said Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president with the Biotechnology Industry Association, or BIO, the country's leading biotechnology organization, whose members include Monsanto and its competitors. “That's what this is about, and labeling is the low hanging fruit.”
The debate over labeling is nothing new. Genetically engineered crops were first cleared for approval in the US in 1996, but even before then, some consumers worried that they had not been adequately safety tested or that they might cause allergic reactions. Some consumers say they want to avoid genetically modified foods for ethical reasons.
But with an election year underway, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture considering a fast-track approvals process for genetically altered crops -- a move that would halve the time needed to get regulatory approval for a modified crop -- advocacy groups are putting more muscle behind the pro-labeling campaign.
“We want it labeled, and we're out here,” said Andrew Kimbrell, of the Center for Food Safety. “We don't want a continuing blank check given to the industry."
Pro-labeling advocates say the matter is simple – an issue of a consumer's right to know. But the biotechnology industry calls it more complicated. The FDA has long held that genetically modified foods are “substantially equivalent” to, and as safe as, naturally-derived foods. Therefore, they shouldn't require a label.
“In the absence of such a difference, FDA has concluded there is no basis to mandate labeling,” explained Tom Helscher, a Monsanto spokesman, in an e-mail. “However, food manufacturers can label their products if they chose to do so ... so long as it is truthful and not misleading. In our view, this approach is working to meet consumer needs.”
Neither Monsanto, or its biggest competitor, E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, provided a representative for a phone interview.
The industry does, however, say this is not just a matter of slapping a label on a box. “It seems so simple,” said Enright. “But there's layer upon layer of complexity here.”
And cost. With an estimated 60 to 80 percent of processed food in an typical American grocery store containing genetically modified ingredients, the price of labeling them all – and of tracing the ingredients through the system – could be significant.
“The more GMOs you have in the market, and the more they're in products that are mixed and matched through the supply chain, the cost of separating them is not trivial,” said Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, a University of Missouri economist who has written extensively on the subject. “Does the market already provide the consumer the appropriate information based on voluntary labels? You have to evaluate whether it's sufficient for the segment of consumers who are interested, and the size of that segment does matter, because the labeling process has cost.”
Kalaitzandonakes and others have raised the question: Should people who don't care about the labels pay for the cost of mandating them?
That question leads to the thorny debate over whether consumers do indeed care. Advocates for labels point to survey after survey showing that 80 to 90 percent Americans want the information. The industry points to one significant bi-annual survey by the International Food Information Council showing that more than 50 percent of consumers support the current policy.
“Most Americans, it's not an issue for them," said David Schmidt, the president and CEO of the council, which is supported by the food and agriculture industry.
But in other countries, including those in the European Union, consumers have clearly said they want to know if a product contains genetically altered ingredients -- and regulators have responded. That, however, does not mean labels saying “Contains GM Ingredients” are common. It means, rather, that food manufacturers often instead seek out non-GM ingredients because they want to avoid labels that could trigger consumer alarm.
"You rarely get products that say: This contains GM," explained Kalaitzandonakes. "When we're talking about mandatory labeling, it usually translates into no GMO products on the shelves."
Kalaitzandonakes pointed out, however, that consumers in other parts of the world don't seem bothered by GM ingredients. In China, for example, where labeling is mandatory, soybean and canola oils labeled as containing GM ingredients have not suffered from a decline in sales.
While many advocates say this labeling is a matter of giving consumers information they want, some concede that labels would be a step toward pushing GM products out of the market.
“Our goal is to engage as many producers as possible in making non-GMO products,” Westgate said.
In the European Union, Kimbrell said, biotechnology companies "have permits to grow all the crops, but they don't, because they realize consumers don't want them."
Labeling advocates question the industry's insistence that labeling is too complicated or costly.
“Of course it's feasible,” Kimbrell said. “Most of the world is doing it. We know it's feasible. We know it's traceable. Virtually all of our major trading partners are labeling. If they're doing this for the rest of the world, what's the problem with letting us know?”