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With Recent Victories, Movement to Label GMOs Gains Steam

More than six months after a big defeat in California, the movement to label foods containing genetically modified organisms appears to be picking up steam across the country.

In the past three weeks, Connecticut and Maine passed labeling bills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time approved a non-GMO label claim for meat products, Chipotle began voluntarily labeling menu items containing GMO ingredients online, and, perhaps most notably, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration funding to label genetically modified salmon if the agency approves the fish.

These are all small steps compared to what California’s Proposition 37 would have accomplished – since that state consumes about 8 percent of all groceries in the United States, some speculated that food giants would have reformulated their products to avoid creating two supply chains – but the string of victories has many in the so-called ‘Right to Know’ movement confident the tide is turning in their favor.

“It’s simply a matter of time,” said Scott Faber, who serves as executive director of Just Label It, a national advocacy campaign. Faber, who is vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, used to be a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which actively lobbies against mandatory labeling initiatives.

Faber believes mandated GMO labeling is inevitable, in part because the food industry would prefer federal standards over a patchwork of state laws.

“I think companies are starting to realize the fight is worse than the label,” he added, noting that campaigns against labeling can harm consumer confidence for certain brands. Some consumers, for example, who buy brands like Cascadian Farm, Kashi, Horizon Organic, Muir Glen, and Odwalla were outraged last fall after learning the companies’ corporate owners had helped fund the effort to defeat Prop 37.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement that it remains opposed to “special mandatory labeling for food products containing genetically modified ingredients because these labels could mislead consumers into believing that ingredients from genetically engineered plants are somehow different or unsafe or unhealthy – in clear contradiction of scientific fact.”

GMA points out that ingredients derived from GM plants have been widely studied and are considered safe by FDA and groups like the American Medical Association. According to the association, foods with genetically modified ingredients make up 70 to 8o percent of the products on grocery store shelves “because they require fewer pesticides, help foods have a longer shelf life and keep production costs down” which reduces food costs for consumers.

The group has been actively engaged in the labeling issue and contributed $ 2 million to help defeat Prop 37, which ultimately went down 51 to 48 percent. In total, $ 9.2 million was spent in support of the proposition and $ 46 million was spent opposing it.

In a speech last summer to the American Soybean Association, GMA CEO Pam Bailey said, “Defeating the initative is GMA’s single highest priority this year,” according to an account in the Hagstrom Report. “We have worked with you on what we consider to be valuable technology, but in the past year we have seen an increase in the rhetoric against it.”

Bailey said the current movement for labeling is stronger than past attempts. “Social media is feeding this effort and making it more difficult to confront and more powerful,” she said, according to the report.

While momentum may by building for labeling advocates, their recent victories come with significant caveats.

The bills approved in Connecticut and Maine only kick in if other states, including a neighboring state, pass labeling requirements. Vermont’s house passed a bill to require labeling GMOs in May but the state senate is not expected to take up the same law until next year. Labeling legislation or ballot initiatives have been introduced in 25 other states, but it’s not clear which states might actually adopt them.

Baylen Linnekin, the executive director of Keep Food Legal, a libertarian group that advocates against government involvement in the food arena, said he thinks mandatory labeling is unnecessary and still faces significant challenges going forward.

“I would not say it’s inevitable,” said Linnekin, explaining that even if labeling laws succeed at the state level they would be challenged in court.

In a recent column for Reason, Linnekin argued the government should stay out of the labeling business: “The truth is that most federal labeling schemes are flawed at best, and often involve conflicts and compromises that rob meaning from the label.”

On the other hand, Linnekin applauds the voluntary actions by companies like Whole Foods, which announced earlier this year it will require GMO labeling in its stores by 2018, and McDonalds and Starbucks, which both recently adopted calorie labeling on their menus.

The non-GMO label approved by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service last week – the first GMO-related claim allowed on U.S. meat, poultry and some processed egg packages – and Chipotle’s decision to note which foods contain GMOs on their online menu are prime examples of voluntary moves to meet niche consumer demands.

According to the New York Times, FSIS approved the label – which can be used on meat and liquid eggs from animals fed only non-GMO feed – after three meat companies petitioned for similar claims. The claim will be certified by the Non-GMO Project.

Private sector labels to help consumers avoid products containing GM ingredients have taken off in recent years. The Non-GMO Project, the leading third-party certifier in North America for non-GMO claims, said interest in certification has increased four-fold in the past year alone as Prop 37 and Whole Foods announcement has raised consumer awareness about GMOs. The group now certifies more than 10,000 products.

“These days you can walk into a gas station and find Non-GMO verified products,” said Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the project.

Despite the explosion in voluntary labeling, advocates want a national law.

While there are labeling bills in both chambers, no one expects Congress will approve them anytime soon. In May, the U.S. Senate voted on a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would have required GMO labeling nationwide, but the measure failed by a vote of 71 to 27.

The closest that advocates have come to mandatory, national GMO labeling of any kind, was last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 15 to 14 to give the FDA $ 150,000 to implement labeling for GM salmon if the agency gives the fish a green light, which it is expected to do.

FDA has said it would not require the GM salmon to be labeled, which is consistent with the agency’s policy that GM foods are not materially different from non-GM foods. Some advocates think this decision has driven more consumers to support labeling efforts.

A petition asking FDA to require labeling for the modified salmon garnered nearly 25,000 signatures and consumer campaigns pressured Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Target, Giant Eagle, and 50 other retailers to promise they wont sell the fish even if the FDA approves it.

A handful of U.S. lawmakers, mostly from states like Alaska, Washington and Oregon, whose wild salmon fisheries are highly lucrative, have opposed approving the GM salmon and have argued that if the fish is approved it should be labeled as a GMO. The labeling amendment that succeeded in the Senate Appropriations Committee was co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). In the House, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has made similar attempts at mandating labeling for GM salmon.

Colin O’Neil, a regulatory analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an anti-GMO advocacy group, called the amendment “a big step forward for labeling in this country.”

The group said it’s not aware of efforts to strip the Begich-Murkowski amendment from the appropriations bill, but said that it would be closely monitoring the bill when it eventually goes to conference to be reconciled with the House version because “we have not seen something like this get that far before.”

Food Safety News

No Marijuana Exemption in CO Initiative to Label GMOs

A Colorado ballot initiative looks like it will make this fall’s general-election ballot after spending less than one-tenth of the amount spent to put a similar measure before Oregon voters in November.

Both proposals call for labels on food made with genetically engineered ingredients. Colorado’s Initiative 48 should make the ballot with about $ 90,000 spent. Oregon’s I-44 goes to voters in November after a $ 1.3-million signature campaign. Colorado’s population of 5.2 million is larger than Oregon’s 3.9 million.

Right to Know Colorado GMO organizer Larry Cooper is a trade show and convention show organizer who claims that volunteers, not paid petition circulators, were key to the petition drive’s success. From June on, however, campaign disclosure documents filed with the Colorado Secretary of State show that payments were being made to a steady stream of paid signature gatherers.

And, the four-page Colorado initiative contains a potentially costly problem.

I-48 drafters exempted several categories of food from the proposed new law, including animal feed and drink, alcoholic beverages, and even chewing gum. They also exempted meat from all animals, even if the critter had been fed a diet of genetically engineered food, and they exempted food not packaged for retail sale.

But there is no exemption for Colorado’s newest industry — recreational marijuana and its edible products, including many made with bakery products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Labels on edibles, which are supposed to disclose concentrate levels and serving sizes, are confusing for some.

Cooper declined an opportunity to comment on whether the initiative might be hurt for not exempting marijuana, especially edible marijuana.

It’s too early to know how the marijuana industry will react to that. They’ve been highly protective of the cutouts they won in their own voter initiative in 2012. Chances are they no more want to place GMO labels on marijuana products than distillers would want to put such signs on their bourbon.

The marijuana industry joining grocery manufacturers and biotechnology would amount to an even more formidable fundraising base for opponents of GMO labeling in Colorado.

Right to Know Colorado GMO will face opposition led by the Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative, which raised a quick $ 200,000 from the Grocery Manufacturing Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Biotechnology Organization, Colorado Bioscience Association, Nutrition Edge Communications, Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association, Pioneer Hi-Bred Research Center, Dow Agro Sciences LLC and the Monsanto Company.

The opposition committee in Colorado has already enlisted Winner & Mandabach Campaigns, California-based political consultants with lots of ballot measure experience and a 90-percent win record. They’ve already beat back GMO labeling campaigns in California and Washington state during recent election cycles.

Right to Know Colorado GMO had only $ 28,515 in the bank on Aug. 1, according to campaign disclosures filed with the Colorado Secretary of State. Except for a $ 25,000 contribution from Clear Lake, IA-based Food Democracy Action and $ 10,000 from Keene, NH-based United Natural Foods Inc., Right to Know Colorado GMO has been a grassroots-funded, mostly small-donor campaign.

The same cannot be said about the other state where a GMO ballot measure has qualified for the ballot. Oregon Right to Know has pocketed six-figure donations from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the Oregon Consumers Fund. All told, Oregon Right to Know spent $ 1.3 million getting its ballot measure qualified for the November ballot and had $ 220,000 in cash available for the start of the next phase of the campaign.

Oregon’s measure, Initiative 44, would require all food with ingredients subjected to genetic engineering to bear the words “Genetically Engineered” or either the front or back of the package. If the food is not packaged, as in produce sections, stores would have to plant labels about stating the same thing.

Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an ongoing coalition of the state’s agriculture, timber, and biotechnology industries, will lead the campaign against I-44. It says that labeling will cost taxpayers and consumers millions and hurt Oregon farmers and food producers.

Food Safety News

Organic buyers avoid GMOs, study says

Avoiding genetically modified organisms is an increasingly important reason why parents choose organic foods, according to a study by the Organic Trade Association.

The study, entitled “U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs 2014,” encompassed more than 1,200 households across the U.S. with at least one child under 18.

“Of all the thoughts that race through the mind of a mom or dad as they do the weekly grocery shopping and decide whether to put an organic or non-organic item in the shopping cart, the desire to stay away from foods that have been genetically modified has never been greater,” the association said.

The study indicated nearly 25% of parents buying organic said avoiding GMOs is one of the top reasons they select organic foods — up from 16% a year ago.

According to Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the association, “Each year we see an increase in parents’ self-described knowledge of organic topics. They have become more informed about the benefits or organic and more aware of questions surrounding GMOs — a heightened awareness being reflected in their buying decisions.”

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Supermarket News

Grocery Manufacturers Want Foods with GMOs to Be Labeled as ‘Natural’

There was a time when food was food. You ate it and were glad of it. What could be more “natural” than that?

But that was back in earlier times when most food came either from your own farm or from stores that bought food from nearby farms. Fast forward to today, and food has become a sometimes complicated and oftentimes controversial topic — all the more so since 1994 with the introduction of a genetically engineered tomato variety, Flavr Savr, which was developed to delay ripening. As the first genetically engineered food to be sold commercially, it opened a new era in agriculture.

Before that, new types of fruits and vegetables were developed by breeding varieties with desired qualities with each other to produce hybrids that were more productive and many times larger, tastier, and easier to grow. But in that sort of traditional breeding method, the genetic material (the DNA or RNA) of the plants wasn’t deliberately altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division.

But with genetic engineering, all of that came to be, and some new players entered the scene. We’re talking about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. And we’re still talking about them, only this time it’s gone a step further than whether foods containing GMOs should bear labels informing consumers of the fact — proposals narrowly rejected recently by voters in California and Washington.

Now it’s about whether foods containing GMOs will be allowed to be labeled as “natural.”

‘Big Food’ plans petition to FDA

Last month, “Big Food,” in the form of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade organization that represents more than 300 businesses, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advising that it intends to petition the agency to allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”

Not surprisingly, this has triggered controversy in the industry and among consumers. In some cases, outrage would be a good word for it.

“It’s a sneaky tactic,” said Sandi Tenneson, who grew up on beef and dairy farms in Western Washington. “It shouldn’t be allowed. The only label that means anything right now is ‘organic’ and maybe ‘grass fed.’ They need to clarify what ‘natural’ is.”

Foods labeled as “organic” are not allowed to contain any GMOs, according to USDA’s organic certification standards.

Examples of GMO ingredients found in many processed foods are genetically modified corn, sugar, soy, and oils made from genetically engineered crops. That’s significant because up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. In fact, according to the Non-GMO Project, as of 2012, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn (corn raised for seed or livestock), 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States are genetically engineered.

In other words, people are — and have been — eating a lot of foods containing GMOs. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly seeking out what they perceive to be natural foods and products.

Out in the marketplace, foods labeled as “natural” accounted for about 10 percent of all grocery sales in 2013, while organic food and products made up about 5 percent of all grocery sales that year, according to a report by the Organic Consumers Association. It’s no secret in the food industry that these categories continue to rack up sales faster than those in other categories.

“Big Food” is aware of this, and it also knows that there are about 65 class-action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers over whether foods with ingredients derived from biotechnology (GMOs) can be labeled as “natural.” Some of these lawsuits have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for aggrieved consumers who felt they had been duped by the “natural” labeling.

The problem is that FDA has no official definition for the meaning of “natural” on food labels. However, its website does offer this information:

“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

A patchwork of regulations

Legislatures in 26 states have been considering whether ingredients derived from biotechnology should be labeled and whether they belong in “natural” foods. Last summer, for example, Connecticut passed legislation on labeling that would make it illegal to use the word “natural” on the packaging of any food product containing biotech ingredients — legislation that Governor Dannel Malloy signed on Dec. 11. To avoid a patchwork of regulations on this, the GMA wants FDA “to become involved in ensuring consistent and uniform rules for foods with ‘natural’ claims and ingredients derived from biotechnology.”

There’s also this irony to consider: By 2018, grocery giant Whole Foods Market will require all foods that contain GMOs sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labeled as such. If FDA allows foods with GMOs to be labeled as “natural,” consumers will likely be confused by two seemingly contradictory labels on the same package.

Referring to its request that “natural” labels be used for foods that include GMOs, the GMA points out that FDA’s 1992 policy on biotech foods states that they are no different from foods developed through traditional plant breeding.

“There is nothing ‘synthetic or artificial’ about foods derived from biotechnology, as that term has been applied by the agency,” states the group’s letter to FDA.

What was that again?

Kaare Melby of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) disagrees with the GMA’s stand on this. GMOs are a combination of DNA that would never exist in nature, he told Food Safety News.

Biotech giant Monsanto shared some similar thoughts when it described GMOs in its glossary of scientific terms: “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism.”

In an email to Food Safety News, Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology trade association, said that, “BIO has not yet taken a formal position on the issue, as this is a really a question for the food industry since biotech companies don’t label foods.”

A ‘David and Goliath battle’

“Biotech bullies and junk-food giants” is how Ronnie Cummins of the OCA describes those leading the charge for “natural” labels on foods containing GMOs. In an essay entitled, “GMO and ‘Natural’ Food Fight: Treacherous Terrain,” Cummins warns that a passionate grassroots movement will fight back in what he refers to as a “David and Goliath” battle.

Earlier this year, the OCA joined with allies in the organic and natural health community to launch a nationwide campaign in the U.S. to “expose and eliminate what it calls “the rampant ‘natural’ labeling and marketing fraud that has slowed the growth of America’s $ 30-billion organic sector.”

“Routine mislabeling and marketing fraud has confused millions of U.S. consumers and has enabled the so-called ‘natural’ foods and products sector to grow into a $ 60-billion-a-year powerhouse, garnering twice as many sales in 2012 as certified organic products,” states the organization’s press release about the formation of the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance.

Adding a surprise twist to all of this, General Mills, Inc., has started producing GMO-free Cheerios. The company expects this new product, which will bear the label, “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” to be available to consumers “shortly.” However, this change does not affect other General Mills brands such as Honey Nut Cheerios.

What about food safety?

FDA has said that because GMO foods don’t materially differ from other types of foods, they don’t need to be labeled as such. But worldwide, more than 50 countries require foods with GMOs to be labeled.

In an earlier interview with Food Safety New, BIO’s spokesperson Batra said that “every credible scientific organization in the world has weighed in on this.”

Those organizations include the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, FDA, and a number of other medical and scientific groups. The consensus is that billions of people have eaten foods with GMOs for years without obvious evidence of a problem.

“They’ve all concluded that genetically engineered foods are the same as conventionally grown and organic foods,” Batra said.

Some of the scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science argued in a dissenting opinion last November that the absence of evidence of ill effects doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And they pointed out that FDA’s testing program pertaining to GMOs is voluntary.

Despite this swirl of controversy, GMO crops continue to march across the landscape. According to a February 2013 report issued by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries were growing biotech crops on more than 420 million acres. Also according to the report, this represents a “stunning 100-fold increase in hectares (a hectare is about 2.471 acres) planted since 1996, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.”

The U.S. remains the top country in biotech acreage, with more than 172 million acres of biotech crops planted in 2012.

Food Safety News