USDA GMO-Free Label - A step in the Right Direction

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Heralding what some people are hesitatingly calling a win, the USDA announced earlier this month that it is developing a label for products that are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While pundits and critics from various camps debate over the safety of consuming GMOs, the government-backed label may appease those of us who care about what’s in our food.

Misuse of labels to confuse consumers is a frustrating, but present, tactic in the food world. In fact, Center for Science in the Public Interest recently called out two baby-food companies for this type of deception. So, if we were to put it nicely, it seems that food companies “need some help” when it comes to properly using food labels. Allison Aubrey of NPR, explains that some food companies are now asking for that help, referring to a letter to the USDA staff written by Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack,:

But as companies increasingly try to use GMO-free as a marketing advantage, it's clear from the letter that some want the USDA's help. As with the agency's other, widely trusted certification programs, this one will be aimed at creating more transparency for consumers and producers."

So, just to be clear, it was a private company that cavorted with the USDA to make this happen. Never mind the tenacious efforts of campaigns like Just Label It or the valiant third party work of the Non-GMO Project, or the 66% of U.S. citizens who would prefer GMO labeling—just a quick call from your friendly global conglomerate and the deal is done. The company, by the way, has yet to be named, but it is reported that they will make themselves known soon. But, cynicism aside, there are a lot people who are on board with this development. Colin O’Neil, Center for Food Safety’s Director of Government Affairs, in a recent press release rallied support:

USDA’s GE-Free label, if executed correctly and with meaningful standards, is another step towards creating greater transparency for all foods, for all Americans. It shows that USDA is properly recognizing the many substantial reasons that consumers have for wanting to purchase food that is GE-Free.”

O’Neil astutely points out that this move could render the Pompeo-Butterfield DARK Act (an industry-backed, watered-down version of GMO labeling that would potentially make this worse off) , even more useless.

Support, however is not unbridled. Greg Jaffe, Biotechnology Director of Center for Science in the Public interest (CSPI), offers a more cautioned analysis in a press release:

...USDA should ensure that any “non-GMO” claim be as neutral as possible and that food companies using that claim do not try to convince consumers that those products are somehow superior or safer than their “GMO” equivalents in any way."

CSPI takes the stance that GMOs are safe and that the labeling hubbub confuses consumers, potentially scaring them away from health foods. Nathanael Johnson, food writer for Grist,  takes a similar stance in a recent article in Time Magazine. He goes even further to propose that many food companies are glomming onto GMO labeling or ridding their supply chains of GMOs to sell us the false idea that it is helping our health or the environment.

We tend to worry about the wrong things—Ebola, airplane crashes, and chemicals in food—while ignoring real dangers—car crashes, obesity, and climate change. Food companies capitalize on our risk blindness. It’s cheaper to make a superficial shift."

Johnson’s proposition may be a little over the top and cross the line into being callous, but he does bring up an interesting point. Maybe this is just a ploy by this mysterious food company to distract us from the bigger issues plaguing our food system and our nation’s health. Although this reporter does not think that anyone who is working towards a more just and transparent food system will be satisfied by this label, if the labeling process is done well, we will be a more informed society, which is ultimately a good thing.—Damon Cory-Watson

 

Original image via Flickr

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Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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