Words and photos by Matt Kelly
Editor's note: This is the fourth (and final) part in a weeklong series about GMO Labeling in NYS. Read parts one, two, and three.
The patchwork of laws is an issue frequently mentioned at the national level and reflected in NYFB’s opposition to mandatory labeling in New York State:
“Individual state labeling initiatives will create a patchwork of policies that food producers will have to navigate in order to get their products on store shelves. Some may choose to not do business in a state with an individual labeling law.”
Even Campbell's CEO Denise Morrison is concerned about the potential for a mash-up of state laws that her company would have to contend with. (She would much prefer national mandatory standards.)
This is not a wholly unreasonable concern. There are currently three states that have passed laws: Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. And according to OpenStates.org, nine states – including New York – are currently considering legislation for mandatory labeling in 2016. Obviously, there is potential for patchwork.
But will “potential” really translate into reality?
“We all look at each others bills to make sure language is similar,” says Stacie Orell of GMO Free New York. “No one working on this thinks it should only be their state.”
“We’re all in close contact,” says Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. While crafting her bills, the assembly member says she has met with advocates from both New York and other states. During her initial writing of legislation, Rosenthal met with Senator Tony Hwang (R-Connecticut), who was a key advocate for passing his state's law. “Particularly in light of the fact that Connecticut’s bill contains a contingency clause requiring contiguous states with a population of 20 million or more to pass similar state legislation, it was critical that our efforts complemented the efforts of our neighboring states,” says Rosenthal.
All three states define “genetic engineering” in the same way:
“Genetic engineering” is a process by which a food is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of:
· in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or
· the fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcomes natural physiological, reproductive, or recombinant barriers and in a way that does not occur through the natural breeding process.
· “In vitro nucleic acid techniques” means techniques, including recombinant DNA or ribonucleic acid techniques, that use vector systems and techniques involving the direct introduction into the organisms of hereditary materials prepared outside the organisms such as micro-injection, chemoporation, electroporation, micro-encapsulation, and liposome fusion.
They include the same categories of food that would require labeling:
· Unpackaged food
· Packaged food, whether it’s a single food or a mixture of ingredients
· Food with GM ingredients totaling 0.9% or more of the total weight of the food
They all exclude the same categories of food from labeling:
· Animals that consume GM feed but are not themselves genetically modified
· Foods that only include GM ingredients such as enzymes and processing aids (like yeast)
· Prepared food intended for immediate consumption (as in restaurants)
But let’s consider the worst-case scenario: different states have different laws regarding the labeling of GM ingredients. How bad could it really be for the food industry? Consider container deposit laws. Only 10 states require deposits on beverage bottles and the value is not the same in every state. As frustrating as this may be to the beverage industry, they have found a simple and ubiquitous labeling solution despite the patchwork of laws. If you’re not familiar with the solution, just take a look at the bottle in your hand.
Wouldn’t you think the food industry is capable of finding an equally simple and ubiquitous solution to labeling GM ingredients?
The Right to Know
Here’s the basic and undeniable point that none of these opposition arguments can overcome: a majority of Americans say they want GM ingredients labeled.
- In a November 2015 poll by the Mellman Group, 88 percent of people polled nationally said they were in favor of required labeling.
- In a January 2015 Associated Press-GfK poll, 66 percent of respondents said they are in favor of requiring food manufacturers to put labels on products that contain genetically modified organisms, or foods grown from seeds engineered in labs.
- In a June 2014 poll by Consumer Reports, 92 percent of respondents said that genetically modified foods should be labeled.
- Even as far back 1993 – three years before GM crops were commercially available – a Rutgers University poll showed that a majority of New Jersey respondents wanted GM foods to be labeled.
“What is the rational argument against transparency?” says Orell. “When do you ever say to consumers they don’t need to know? Especially if a majority of us say we want to know.”
Assemblywoman Rosenthal agrees.
“It’s not like corporations are giving people food," she says. "People are buying it. Consumers have a right to know.”
New York has the opportunity to act decisively to ensure this right.
A617 and S485 must make it through the steeplechase of committees and votes in both the Assembly and the Senate before June 16, the last day of the legislative session. And there is no telling if Congress will act preemptively before then.
The clock is ticking.