In a media briefing organized by health advocacy group Environmental Working Group (EWG) yesterday, Amy’s Kitchen chief executive Andy Berliner said: “Only in America can you consume genetically engineered foods without knowing it.”
Asked whether labeling GMOs is unnecessary as consumers that want to avoid them can already do so by seeking out organic foods or those with non-GMO labels, he claimed most consumers do not in fact realize that the vast majority of packaged foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.
He added: “We have friends outside the industry and when they are giving their kids candy and you say: ‘Did you realize that there are GE ingredients in that? they say no, we had no idea.”
Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from
While much of the Q&A session in the briefing was devoted to whether genetically engineered foods represented a threat to public health or the environment, this is not the critical issue at stake, insisted United Natural Foods, Inc. chairman and co-founder Michael Funk.
There are conflicting studies about whether several ingredients, such as sugar, are harmful or not, he said, “But the bottom line is, we have the ability to identify it [sugar] in the foods we buy [because it is listed on the label].
“And that’s all we are asking [for GMOs], so consumers can identify whether they are in their products.”
Whole Foods Market executive VP for operations David Lannon added: “We believe that all consumers have a right to know where their food comes from.”
Ultimately costs will come down
While sourcing some non-GMO ingredients is currently more expensive for US manufacturers given the ubiquity of genetically engineered corn in particular, prices will ultimately come down, said Lannon.
“Ultimately costs will come down and it will be affordable for everybody.”
It won’t happen overnight, but if Prop 37 builds up such a head of steam that other states follow suit and federal legislation is developed, and manufacturers demand non-GMO ingredients in large numbers, US farmers will switch to planting non-GMO varieties, he added.
UNFI’s Funk added: “I believe strongly that this will not add to our distribution costs.”
Nature’s Path CEO Arran Stephens said: “Once consumers know what is in their foods, they will demand GMO-free products.”
Steve Hoffman, managing partner at marketing agency Compass Natural Marketing, said: “Right now the opposition [to Prop 37] is banking on consumers not knowing what’s in their products.”
Non-GMO is good for business
Food manufacturers should also bear in mind that growth in non-GMO foods is significantly outpacing the overall market, and that switching to non-GMO ingredients if you want to avoid Prop 37-style labeling could be good for business, said Lannon.
Any mislabeling of ingredients and you can get sued, that’s just a part of being in business
Asked about the costs of labeling, Jimbo Someck, CEO of retailer Jimbo’s… Naturally, said that companies would have 18 months to update their labels, which was enough time to make a change without significantly increasing costs: “I do not feel it’s overly burdensome.”
Asked about the threat of litigation, Lannon said this had been overplayed by the ‘No’ campaign, adding: “Any mislabeling of ingredients and you can get sued, that’s just a part of being in business.”
David and Goliath
As for ad spending, large food and biotech companies such as DuPont and Monsanto had pumped cash into the ‘No’ campaign and flooded the airwaves with “deceptive advertising” claimed Hoffman, who said the ‘Yes’ campaign hoped to raise a further $2m dollars before Californians vote on Prop 37 on November 6.
‘No’ campaign: The science is on our side
The No to Prop 37 campaign responded with a press release observing that the Board of Directors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which also publishes the journal Science), thinks mandatory GMO labeling “can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
In a statement approved by its board on October 20 and published yesterday, the AAAS said it agreed with the FDA, which has consistently argued that GE foods that do not differ from conventional counterparts "in any meaningful or material way" do not warrant additional labeling.
It added: “The WHO, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
“Contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.
“Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
Click here to read the AAAS statement - ‘On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods’ - in full.
Click here to read about what Prop 37 will mean for ‘natural’ claims.