“We have thought about this and debated it and had good conversations about it, but it is time to move on to action – to give consumers a process by which they get information and get it in a way which is most acceptable to them and … in a way that provides us enough time to educate consumers about precisely where to look, when to look and what to look at,” Vilsack told attendees at the Organic Trade Association’s Policy Conference in Washington, DC, May 25.
He explained that blocking GMO labeling is no longer an option given Vermont’s mandatory labeling law will go into effect this summer and other states likely will try to follow suit.
In addition, he noted, several large companies, including The Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg’s and Mars, are voluntarily labeling GMOs on their products.
“So, even if Congress does absolutely nothing, we have in essence, a de facto labeling system in the country,” Vilsack said.
That said, he urged Congress to take action rather than letting the market and state governments work out the issue.
“They need to establish, in my view, a mandatory system. One that is flexible and has options and one that is timely,” he said.
He explained the risk of letting states pass a patchwork of laws or passing a national voluntary labeling law that would preempt state action is that these approaches leave room for too much variability.
“The problem with all of that is there is no consistency. There is no predictability. There is no stability and the consumer can be easily confused because everybody might do it slightly differently if there is no standard,” Vilsack said.
In turn, if consumers are confused, they likely will be less trusting of the food and beverage industry and less willing to buy products – hindering the growth the sector currently enjoys, he said.
Most consumers want national, mandatory labeling
The vast majority of consumers agree with Vilsack’s view, according to an unrelated Harris Poll of more than 2,000 US consumers released May 25.
The poll, which was conducted between April 29 and May 3, found 75% of consumers support labeling legislation and 78% believe the legislation should be held by the federal government rather than the states.
In addition, 80% agree labeling should be mandatory and that consumers “have a right to know what is in their food or whether it has been altered or changed in some way that is not natural and could impact consumer health,” according to the results.
These results reflect 81% of respondents’ opinions that GMO labeling is a health and safety issues verses 19% who see it as an environmental issue.
In addition, 58% of respondents also agreed that “what we don’t know about GMOs is part of the problem.” According to the Harris Poll, these respondents agree that this includes a lack of knowledge about the long term impact of GMO foods on human health, or the need for pesticides and herbicides, or how changing the genetic make-up of plants might create harder to kill weeds and super bugs.
On the flip side, 42% of respondents agreed that GMOs have been tested and approved as safe by experts and provide benefits such as more productive plants that allow more food to be grown on fewer acres.
Broader benefits of labeling
In addition to satisfying consumer demand in a clear, orderly manner, Sec. Vilsack argued that mandatory, standardized labeling also would create greater opportunities for the sale of organic products, which by law are non-GMO.
He also argued that mandatory labeling would help rebuild consumer confidence in US agriculture, which currently is shaky.
He said consumers should have stronger confidence in US agriculture because “the farmers I know, the farmers I talk to, regardless of what method they use – they are good people. They are caring people. They think they are doing a good job. They think they are doing the right thing … [and] they think they are helping to feed the world.”
And finally, Vilsack said, if Congress and industry can work collaborative to pass mandatory national labeling they could also help restore Americans’ faith in the larger US political structure.
“I hope that agriculture provides an example to the rest of the country that you can have differences of opinions, but it doesn’t prevent you from finding solutions and answers. I think we have had enough conflict in this country. We have had enough arguments and disagreements and language that is not acceptable – you wouldn’t want your kids to be talking this way,” Vilsack said, adding: “I think agriculture can provide an example to the rest of the country, and I am going to try, in the remaining months that I have in this job, to facilitate that.”