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Environmental Working Group, Organic Voices form GMO labeling coalition

By Hank Schultz , 06-Mar-2013

Photo courtesy of Just Label It

Photo courtesy of Just Label It

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Organic Voices, the group behind the Just Label It campaign, have announced a new collaboration to advocate for the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients and to highlight the benefits of organic foods.

Among the leaders in the new collaboration are Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm Chairman and Organic Voices’ board chair, Ken Cook, President EWG and Organic Voices’ board member and Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at EWG.

The details of the campaign, disseminated in a Wednesday morning conference call with journalists,  are still being determined, organizers said, but it will include social media outreach efforts to build grass roots support as well as traditional lobbying efforts.

Labels, not laws

What the group won’t do, Hirshberg said, is try to get a new law passed.  The group’s initial target will be advocating for FDA to require GMO labeling, something he believes the agency has the mandate to do.

“We know that FDA can label. There are all kinds of examples where FDA has voluntarily adopted labeling  of processes, like for irradiated food, juice from concentrate, for country of origin,” Hirshberg said.

“We at this point do not believe that federal legislation is needed for labeling. We believe that FDA has the authority and plenty of precedent.”

It’s not a matter of safety, Hirshberg said.  If food was unsafe, it would be banned from the shelves in any case.  It’s about choice, and the will of the people on that score is crystal clear, he said.

“The polling data overwhelming shows that Americans want labeling. Over 92% of Americans support labeling of GE ingredients.  The support for labeling cut across all demographic lines.  There is no difference among parties,” he said.

Shift among big players

Faber noted that a shift in the food industry began around the time of the fight over California’s Prop 37 that would have required GMO labeling and which was ultimately defeated. Companies had to come out and declare their true colors, he said, and for some the process was unsettling, and it makes it more likely that some of the food industry’s heavy hitters will come around to the coalition’s point of view.

Companies are realizing, Faber said, that  “the fight over GE labeling is worse for their brand reputations than the label itself.”

“Large food companies who realize that being on record as being against giving people information about what they are eating, that’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy brand propositon,” Hirshberg said.

“It’s a lot smarter for them to be on side of transparency.  We are building a big tent here.”

Faber views the fight over GMO labeling as an aberration in the history of the food industry in the US.  Over the past 20 years the industry has moved toward providing consumers with more information on food labels, he said.

State efforts change landscape

Despite the fact that some of the major players in the food industry such as big food companies, chemical companies like Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association poured money into the anti-Prop 37 campaign, Hirshberg said he sees a definite shift in the discussion in the months following that election.  As more state GMO labeling initiative campaigns get underway, companies are starting to look at how to negotiate the new landscape.

“The game has changed. The companies in general do not want to have 50 different regs.  None of us wants that. Increasingly we are hearing from folks out there that they are seeking a different way,” Hirschberg said.

“I think what you are seeing here is a family effort; what we are really trying to do is to strengthen our ranks and broaden our ranks,” Cook said.

“Consumers look to the organic industry for leadership.  We need to play a role in setting the agenda for where food and agriculture policy goes in the years ahead,” he said.

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works for transparency and best practices in spheres such as food, farming and energy.  EWG and Organic Voices will cooperate with the Organic Trade Association in the new labeling initiative, Hirshberg said. 

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