BOSTON — The debate over whether foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, should have to be labeled as such is picking up steam. This month, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law, and Maine quickly followed. But due to lobbying by opponents, neither law will take effect unless several other states adopt similar legislation — and Massachusetts may become one of those.
Five GMO labeling bills are pending here, and WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer discussed the issue with Ed Stockman, of the group Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs, and Louis Finkel, executive vice president for government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Ed, would you start by giving us some sense of how widespread genetically modified ingredients are in the foods we buy?
Ed Stockman: Well it’s really difficult to know that for certain because the foods are not labeled. If they were labeled, we’d know exactly how ubiquitous they are. But there are estimates that within 70 percent of processed foods in supermarkets have some ingredients that have been genetically engineered.
And Louis, does the Grocery Manufacturers Association generally agree with that estimate of 75 percent or so?
Louis Finkel: Well, I think it’s probably someplace between 70 to 80 percent. But to the question of whether or not we know how much genetically engineered ingredient is out there, the Department of Agriculture tracks how much is planted every year. And with corn, soy beans and sugar beets, the current USDA estimates are over 90 percent. So any products that contain those ingredients, which are the majority of packaged products in the grocery store, that’s probably about right. Products that contain sugar, that contain soy and soy extracts and oils, that contain canola, that contain oils from cottonseed — which are primary ingredients for many products, or at least partial ingredients for many products — contain those, which are all genetically engineered.
Louis, the Grocery Manufacturers Association opposes labeling. Why is that?
Louis Finkel: Let’s start with fact that this is prevalent, it’s been in marketplace for 20 years, and we’ve seen no health impacts — that, effectively, the technology is safe. And this isn’t me saying this. This is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This is the American Medical Association. This is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is the World Health Organization — that genetically engineered ingredients provide no material difference from their conventional counterparts and, as such, putting a label will be inherently misleading and confusing to consumers.
Ed, there has been pending legislation before that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods in Massachusetts. But there seems to be a real momentum now. What do you think accounts for that?
Ed Stockman: Well, it’s an issue whose time has really come. People are very concerned about what’s going on in the food industry in this country, and if these foods and crops were so good, like the biotech lobbyists tell us, you’d think they’d want to have them labeled. You’d think they would want to tout the fact that a particular processed food has GMO ingredients. Sixty-four nations of the world label or ban GMOs from their countries. There are only two industrialized nations that do not require labeling: the United States and Canada. And my question is, what do those other 64 nations know that Americans are not allowed to know?
Louis, another argument that advocates of labeling make is that we already label foods for sugar and fat and their nutritional content. So why not let consumers know this additional piece of information and let them make their own informed decision on whether to buy products with GMOs?
Louis Finkel: Well, Sacha, effectively this is an ingredient. There’s no material difference between conventional corn and genetically engineered corn, conventional soy and genetically engineered soy. They perform the same in our products. They provide no safety or health risks. And the nutritional content and the ingredient information provided on a package is to give consumers a clear picture of what’s in their products and if they have anything to be concerned about, like allergens.
So why not total honesty and transparency in labeling, whether it’s GMOs, whether it’s the sugar or fat contents? Why not put it all out there?
Louis Finkel: Again, it’s prevalent in the marketplace, Sacha. We don’t hide from that, we don’t shy away from that. But when government requires a label on a product, it’s to identify a risk for people to make clear choices. And choices already exist in the marketplace. If consumers opt to not want to purchase products with genetically engineered ingredients, they already have the ability to buy certified organic products, because to be certified organic you can’t have genetically engineered. Ed’s an organic farmer. He understands this very, very well, that consumers that opt to buy his products have made the decision.
Ed Stockman: I have many friends who do not eat organic or only eat organic partially. And they would like to know when they’re not buying organic whether something has GMO ingredients in it or not. Labels are education. We look at it that way. It’s a way of life today. Everyone reads labels. And it’s not a warning, it’s not a scare tactic. It’s just information so a consumer can base their purchases on that information.
Two legislative committees are considering the GMO labeling bills in Massachusetts and both recently held public hearings, but none of the bills have come up for a vote yet.