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The Future of Food Labeling

March 2, 2013

LabelingAs European companies struggle to contain the horsemeat scandal, a new labeling debate is emerging in the United States. California’s Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients, failed last November after a massive campaign by leading biotech companies opposing the initiative. Ironically, while the California initiative was unsuccessful, it generated considerable discussion and has now led to further campaigns.

In Washington, a campaign to introduce mandatory labeling for GMO foods has been launched and is currently collecting signatures. Similar campaigns are also underway in Vermont,Michigan, New Mexico, Maine, and elsewhere. And the backers of the California initiative have promised to continue their efforts to get GM foods labeled in the state, suggesting that they will have another measure on the 2014 ballot. According to one estimate, approximately twenty states are currently considering labeling requirements.

Writing after the defeat of California’s Prop 37 last November, I speculated that the success of the No On 37 campaign would be short-lived; that the tens of millions of dollars spent in defeating the measure would engender additional suspicion of the technology itself. As I wrote then,

In the end, I wonder whether the No campaign will ultimately backfire on itself. Campaigning against labeling suggests—correctly or not—that the industry has something to hide. A far more effective approach might be to discuss the issues directly, rather than talking about frivolous lawsuits and special interests…But the in United States, popular discussion remains muted, largely because the biotechnology industry has found it preferable to keep labeled products off the shelf. How much longer they will be effective in doing so remains uncertain.

It’s thus not much of surprise, as a recent story in the New York Times observers, that, “The big food companies found themselves in an uncomfortable position after Prop. 37, and they’re talking among themselves about alternatives to merely replaying that fight over and over again…They spent a lot of money, got a lot of bad press that propelled the issue into the national debate and alienated some of their customer base, as well as raising issues with some trading partners.”

What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the emerging support for labeling from major corporations. According to a report in the New York Times (hat tip to Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog), several prominent brands are considering changes to their GM policy. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for example, recently announced they would cease using genetically modified ingredients in their products by the end of the year. And Wal-Mart was in attendance at a recent meeting considering GM labeling.

The Organic Consumers Association is pushing their position. After the defeat of Prop 37, it launched a “Traitors Boycott” campaign,  targeting organic and natural foods companies whose parent companies funneled large sums of money to the No on 37 campaign.

Moving forward, the Organic Consumers Association boycott appears to be a powerful strategy to force change in corporate America. Companies with a strong natural, organic, or green image are particularly vulnerable to pressure on this front. And the McDonald’s experience suggests that carefully targeted campaigns can have profound effects. In 2000, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, and other fastfood and snackfood companies, responding to popular pressure, announced they would source their French fries and potato chip potatoes exclusively from non-GM sources. That decision effectively  forced Monsanto to shelve research on GM potatoes. If Wal-Mart, which alone accounts for approximately one-quarter of all grocery sales in the United States,  requires food sold in its stores to be labeled, state labeling requirements will be unnecessary.


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