CFSAF: 'Gen Mills was forced to make decision because of Senate’s failure to act'

General Mills and Mars to roll out GMO labeling nationwide as Vermont deadline looms: 'We can’t label our products for only one state'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Mars: "We're committed to being transparent with our consumers so they can understand what’s in the products they love."
Mars: "We're committed to being transparent with our consumers so they can understand what’s in the products they love."

Related tags: General mills, Genetically modified organism, Genetic engineering, Genetically modified food

It was prompted by pragmatism, rather than an ideological shift, but General Mills and Mars have resolved to roll out GMO labeling nationwide as Congress has proved unable to hammer out a federal solution that all stakeholders can get behind before new labeling laws take effect in the state of Vermont in July.

Writing on the Taste of General Mills blog​ two days after an industry-backed bill proposing voluntary GMO labeling introduced by Sen Pat Roberts (R-KS) was defeated in the Senate,​ Jeff Harmening EVP and COO for US Retail at General Mills, said:

“As the discussions continue in Washington, one thing is very clear: Vermont state law​ requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines.

We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products.”

Mars: We're committed to being transparent

Mars, in turn explains ​on its website: "In 2014, the state of Vermont passed a mandatory genetically modified (GM) ingredient labeling law that requires most human food products containing GM ingredients to include on-pack labeling as of July 2016.

"To comply with that law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide.... We're committed to being transparent with our consumers so they can understand what’s in the products they love."

But it added: "We firmly believe GM ingredients are safe. Food developed through biotechnology has been studied extensively and judged safe by a broad range of regulatory agencies, scientists, health professionals, and other experts around the world."

General Mills, similarly, has not changed its mind about the safety of genetically engineered food crops, said Harmening: “Every major health and safety agency in the world agrees that GMOs are not a health or safety concern.”

What does the Vermont GMO labeling law mandate?

ben-and-Jerry--No-GMO

Under Act 120​ firms supplying foods for sale in Vermont must declare that they are: ‘Produced with genetic engineering’​ or ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ ​or ‘may be produced with genetic engineering’​ unless they can prove otherwise.

It excludes processed foods containing GE material if this material accounts for less than 0.9% of the dry weight of the product. (For example, a salad dressing that contains only a small amount (no more than 0.9% by weight) of corn syrup produced from GE corn and no other GE material would not be subject to the labeling requirement.)

Similarly, it does not require meat or milk from animals fed genetically engineered feed to be labeled, and excludes alcohol, processing aids/enzymes (eg. cheese made with vegetarian GE rennet), dietary supplements, medical foods and foods sold in restaurants or unpackaged foods sold in supermarket delis (eg. hot soup).

The label "must be located on the package so as to be easily found by consumers when viewing the outside of the package". ​Stickers or stanps are also acceptable.

Read the text of the law HERE​ plus an FAQ​ from the Vermont attorney general’s office.

Attorney: Could Gen Mills' decision have implications on 'natural' labeling nationwide?

So what do attorneys make of the news? And will other big CPG firms now follow suit?

Kristen Polovoy of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, told FoodNavigator-USA she expected a flurry of similar announcements, coupled with a drive to step up non-GMO sourcing activities:

"Recall that many CPG manufacturers changed their food ingredient sourcing and production processes to affix “gluten-free” labels to foods, in order to claim part of the explosive revenue growth in this market segment over the past few years.  In short, if “GMO-free” is the new “gluten-free” in the public eye, food manufacturers might be looking to roll out nationwide GMO-free labels to stay not so much ahead of the curve but just with​ the curve in the first instance."

Vermont's GMO labeling law comes into effect July, 2016: Are you ready?

Rebecca Cross Landscape

"There is no current consensus in the industry on how companies will comply with the law in Vermont. A practical approach could have been for retailers to sticker products before they go on shelf, but the law has disincentivized that.  Retailers are not generally responsible for compliance, but the law provides that if retailers choose to sticker, they could be rendered 'manufacturers' under the law and liable for compliance. Therefore, unless companies can tightly segregate their distribution, they may choose to label nationwide. 

"The penalties for non-compliance are high: up to $1,000 per day per store per mislabeled SKU. Additionally, non-complying companies could face consumer litigation. There is a safe harbor sell-through period, however. The AG has said that until January 1, 2017, it will presume that noncompliant products were packaged and distributed before the effective date."

Rebecca Cross, partner, BraunHagey & Borden LLP

Gary Hirshberg: If Gen Mills and Campbell’s are accepting this is what consumers want, so should our political representatives

General Mills’ and Mars' decisions were immediately welcomed by anti-GMO activists including Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm, who said: “This is an incredible victory for consumers everywhere. I applaud their leadership for recognizing that consumers simply want to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown.

Stonyfield-grassfed
Stonyfield Farm chairman Gary Hirshberg: "Consumers simply want to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown."

"If large companies like General Mills and Campbell’s are accepting that this is what consumers want, then so should our political representatives.”

CFSAF: Our nation’s food supply chain is being thrown into chaos

Industry-backed group The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), however, said the CPG giants had been "forced to make this decision because of the Senate’s failure to act on Wednesday.

"Our nation’s food supply chain is being thrown into chaos, the full consequences of which, such as higher food prices, will continue to reveal themselves so long as we lack a consistent national food labeling standard. The reality is that a state of only 600,000 residents is now dictating food labeling policy in a nation of 300 million."

It also raised concerns about the legal issues that could arise if other states adopt rules that differ from those in Vermont's law, which comes into force on July 1.

“What remains to be seen... is what happens if other states reject these labels as inaccurate or misleading or implement laws requiring slightly different labeling language. This is where the situation becomes untenable and consumers pay the price. It is nothing short of irresponsible for the Senate to continue to allow this issue to fester, leaving food companies and farmers to an uncertain fate.”

food-shopping-istock-anyaberkut

"Our nation’s food supply chain is being thrown into chaos... The reality is that a state of only 600,000 residents is now dictating food labeling policy in a nation of 300 million...General Mills was forced to make this decision because of the Senate’s failure to act."

Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food

"If large companies like General Mills and Campbell’s are accepting that this is what consumers want, then so should our political representatives.”

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm

One of the problems is that if you satisfy the standard in Vermont, that doesn't mean you will satisfy the standard of the state after that, or the state after that. One possible alternative to complying with the Vermont labeling standard, that some companies have discussed, is to just pull your products from Vermont until such time as a national labeling standard is enacted.

...My sense is that many CPG companies may try to wait it out a bit longer in the hope that the Senate is successful in reaching an agreement. 

Glenn Kerner, a partner in Goodwin Procter’s food litigation practice 

GMA: Our members are stuck between a rock and a hard place

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), meanwhile, said members were now stuck inbetween a rock and a hard place: 

GMA member companies such as General Mills are individually deciding how they will comply with the Vermont law, even as the company is working with other food manufacturers, retailers and agriculture groups to continue to push for passage of the federal bill that would protect consumers, farmers and small businesses from a costly patchwork of state labeling laws.

"This announcement should give new urgency to the need for action on a national law when the Senate returns from its recess in April.”

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