Source: Gary Brock videoPanelists talk about GMO food labeling.
By Gary Brock
COLUMBUS — A box of Cheerios has a label on its side that says it does not contain genetically modified ingredients. That is because there are no commercially available GMO oats.
An orange juice label says simply, “Oranges are not genetically engineered.” This is also because there are no GMO oranges.
But how long with such labels be allowed? Will food companies in the future have to invest in additional research and testing in order to continue making such claims?
And what impact will the new GMO- genetically modified organisms – labeling law have on farmers, groceries, the food processing industry and consumers?
A lot more impact than most would imagine, according to those taking part in an Ohio State University panel discussion on the impact new proposed labeling law will have across the whole spectrum of the food industry.
Last fall, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring most food labels to indicate — with text, a symbol or a QR code readable by smartphone — whether the food contains GMO ingredients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has two years to write the rules that will put the legislation into effect.
The “GMO Labeling and the U.S. Food System” panel included moderator Matt Roberts, Ohio State University agriculture economist; Ken Foster, professor and head of Agriculture Economics at Purdue University; Andy Vollmar, food and feed ingredient manager of The Andersons Grain Group; and Ian Sheldon, Andersons Chair of Agriculture Marketing at Ohio State.
Roberts pointed out that he and Sheldon were on a panel in 2000 discussing the acceptance of GMOs, and now, 16 years later, “we are talking something different – labeling. There has obviously been a tremendous discussion recently about GMO labeling. We know these subjects matter to consumers. But what happens beyond the grocery store? What is the implication for the rest of the food chain?” Roberts asked.
“In thinking back to 2000, I remember discussing why Europeans were so against GMOs, and were struggling with labeling GMOs then,” said Sheldon.
“My sense of the bill that was passed was that a lot of lobbying dollars were spent to get a compromise bill approved through Congress. It appears that the food industry was against the labeling from the beginning but they went with the compromise to preempt the Vermont legislation,” Sheldon said.
The product label will not say it contains GMOs, but will have a QR symbol that when scanned by a smartphone takes the consumer to a website that describes what is in the product.
“There was always a fear that the ‘label’ would be like a skull and crossbones that warn of GMOs. The food industry sees this new compromise as a way to be transparent. Consumers will be willing to search for that information,” according to Sheldon.
What isn’t clear is how many people will switch to certified non-GMO food products. “My breakfast cereal this morning said: “not containing genetically modified ingredients” which is obvious since at this time there is no commercially available GMO wheat, so how productive is that label? Also, I saw an orange juice label that said simply, ‘Oranges are not genetically engineered’ and I thought that was absolutely brilliant label. Simply Orange is simply being honest.”
The USDA hasn’t decided its labeling threshold, Sheldon pointed out. In questioning the Cheerios cereal label and the orange juice label, Sheldon wondered if these companies will have to invest in the future in additional testing in order to continue making that claim? “There are a lot of GMO claims out there that aren’t certified.”
“We need to be more transparent and do a better job of communicating GMO information to the public,” said Foster. He pointed out that there is not a need for FDA approval of GMO products because 20 years ago the FDA concluded that GMO ingredients were not materially different that non-GMO. It is all voluntary, then.
“Everyone needs to be cautious as we work to resolve the issues of things like non-GMO standards and how the USDA sets standards in the future. We’ve also had a less than ideal regulatory system. There are many uncertainties with this labeling and what is non-GMO and GMO,” Foster pointed out.
Vollmar said labeling is all about consumer choices and what products they want.
“Consumers drive what the market does, by their purchases at the grocery shelf, and that goes right back to the farmer in terms of what the farmer produces and how the farmer can compete,” he said.
“The number of products labeled organic and non-GMO, and even ancient grains, only continues to rise. Consumers also will want to know more about where their food comes from. Not just a region, but from the actual farm. This information creates a connection back to the farm.”
Vollmar said that when people pay a premium, then they want to know the ingredients in the foods. “Consumers trust when they know what is on the food and where that food comes from. Change will be driven faster as we keep increasing technology and use of smart phones.”
In the past, if there was not a clear “non-GMO” designation, then the assumption has been that it is not non-GMO. That will all change as the new labels are in place, Vollmar pointed out. Consumers are willing to pay that non-GMO label markup; it is viewed as a luxury product.
“There has been a lot of discussion in the media about whether GMO labels are a good idea or a bad idea,” said Roberts.
“But the truth is more complicated, because, as economists, we need to know the costs and benefits. And one of the things that really hasn’t been discussed well anywhere is what are the impacts of labeling on the food system?”
The federal law pre-empts a Vermont state law passed in 2014, which would have taken effect in July. Advocates of the Vermont law have cried foul over the federal legislation, as the state law was more stringent and would have required such items be more clearly labeled with specific wording, “produced with genetic engineering.”
Adding to the debate is the growing popularity of voluntary labels verifying that a food does not contain GMO ingredients.
“All the evidence is that these products are in every way equivalent for consumers and are nearly indistinguishable from each other,” Roberts said. “But consumers really care about GMO labeling. It’s happening.”
Roberts said the effects of GMO labeling could ripple throughout the food production and distribution systems.
“What does a national GMO labeling standard mean for changes in crops that are being planted?” he said. “If we see an increase in demand for non-GMO crops, what does that do to the marketing channel — storage and transportation — in segregating GMO and non-GMO crops? Are there differences in implications on the food chain between labels that say ‘contains GMOs’ versus a ‘non-GMO’ label?”
Gary Brock is editor of Rural Life Today and can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock 4. OSU Extension contributed information to this report.