GMO labeling faces growing food industry opposition in Congress

GMO protest
People carry signs during a protest against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms in Los Angeles in May 2013.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images, File

Lucky Charms cereal, Pillsbury biscuits, Red Baron pizza and other products that call Minnesota home could be required to carry labels detailing any genetically-modified ingredients if a bill in the state Legislature becomes law.

But that's not really the outcome one of the bill's sponsors, State Rep. Karen Clark, has in mind.

What she really wants is for the federal government to step in with a national standard to label those foods. Most of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets in Minnesota come from genetically-modified varieties that ultimately make their way into the products we buy on supermarket shelves. That's something consumers ought to know, said Clark, DFL-Minneapolis.

The veteran DFL lawmaker sees state-level action as a stick that will induce the industry to change its mind about mandatory labeling at the federal level.

Congress is getting involved, but not the way Clark wants. A bill introduced in the U.S. House this month by Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo would block the federal government and states from requiring labels for genetically modified foods.

Non-GMO labels
Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products, in Los Angeles, Calif., October 19, 2012.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images, File

More than 20 states are attempting to pass such GMO laws nationwide, but food manufacturers and seed companies are pressing Congress to block those efforts.

•Related: Minn. GMO labeling bill hearing draws heated support, criticism

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington trade group that counts Minnesota food giants Cargill, General Mills and Hormel among its members, is one of the Pompeo bill's biggest supporters.

"A mandatory label on a product will only mislead and confuse consumers," said Louis Finkel, the group's top lobbyist.

Mislead and confuse because Finkel notes that the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association all back the use of genetically modified crops for food production.

"There's a broad scientific consensus around the safety of genetically engineered ingredients," he said.

Some companies voluntarily label their products that are free of genetically modified materials. But if labels are mandatory, Finkel said it could spook consumers into thinking the products are dangerous.

Pompeo's office didn't respond to interview requests. Industry critics, however, say his bill would prevent consumers from ever knowing what's in their food.

"This is really the catch all and the industry's wish list bill," said Colin O'Neil, lobbyist for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

O'Neil notes that many food companies already disclose plenty about what's being added to their foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration "requires the labeling of nearly 4,000 other ingredients, additives and processes. Things like orange juice from concentrate and foods that have been irradiated," he said.

"A mandatory label on a product will only mislead and confuse consumers."

The Washington bill is a sign that the industry doesn't want to spend tens of millions of dollars fighting the issue at the state level, he added.

None of Minnesota's members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors, but DFL Rep. Tim Walz's office said the congressman generally opposed mandatory labeling.

Neither Clark's bill in the state Legislature nor the legislation in Congress is likely to get a vote this year. And given the money and energy on both sides, it's a fight that's not likely to be resolved any time soon.

At a hearing last week at the state Capitol on Clark's bill, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council called genetically engineered crops the best and most environmentally friendly way to boost yields.

Clark, though, questions whether it's also best for consumers.

"I think there's a growing body of good scientific evidence that suggests there are some health hazards for some of the products and there's also just a lot of work to be done to help us determine if that's true in certain areas," Clark said.

O'Neil points to the growing popularity of organic foods and consumer interest in where food comes from and says ultimately, the industry is going to have to change its practices.

"If the food industry is afraid of the backlash from consumers about when they find out what's in their products," he said, "then that's ultimately the food industry's problem."

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