Consumer push for GM labelling growing in U.S.

Canada will feel pressure | Consumers are becoming more leery about safety issues and food makers are listening

The push for GM labelling is gaining momentum in the United States and could spill over into Canada, says a consumer group.


“There is growing consumer, food chain and political interest in GM labelling at this time,” said Charlie Arnott, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity, which builds consumer confidence in the food system.


“Most consumers can’t articulate a specific concern related to GM, but it tends to be an icon for what they don’t like about today’s food system.”


He said they don’t like that the system has become larger and more integrated, industrialized and processed. They also worry that food manufacturers are putting profit ahead of public interest.


Arnott thinks that distrust is leading to heightened interest in labelling of genetically modified food, despite the fact that the American Medical Association says there is no difference between GM and non-GM food in terms of food safety.


Connecticut and Maine have passed GM labelling legislation, but it won’t come into effect in either state until four other states have implemented similar measures.


Voters in California and Washington narrowly rejected GM labelling ballots in referendums held in those two states. 


DTN reports that biotechnology companies and other supporters spent nearly $70 million over two years to defeat the labelling ballots.


According to Just Label It, 20 states are poised to pass GM labelling legislation this year.


The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), one of the groups that has been funding the fight against GM labelling initiatives, has drafted legislation to create a federal legal framework for voluntarily labelling GM food.


“That is a very clear sign that the grassroots demand for labelling has huge traction,” said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.


She believes the GMA is doing what the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors did 15 years ago when mandatory labelling was a hot topic in Canada. 


“The idea of voluntary labeling is a diversionary tactic to disperse mo-mentum for mandatory labelling and to allow governments to excuse themselves from the debate,” said Sharratt.


She thinks it is only a matter of time before there is mandatory labelling in the U.S.


“There is a ground swell of action to make it happen,” said Sharratt.


“If there is mandatory labelling in the United States, it will roll up to Canada, there is no question. We have an integrated North American food industry.”


Mandatory labelling legislation was defeated in Canada in 2001, and since then a number of private member bills have been rejected. NDP MP Murray Rankin tabled the latest bill Dec. 4.


Arnott is not convinced labelling is a fait accompli south of the border.


“How it gets resolved is still to be determined,” he said.


Arnott believes there needs to be a national solution because a patchwork of state labelling laws would be untenable for food manufacturers and consumers.


Governments are not the only entities weighing in on the GM labelling issue. 


General Mills recently announced it has reformulated Original Cheerios and is advertising that the product is GM-free.


Catherine Adams Hutt, chief regulatory and science officer for Sloan Trends Inc., which monitors food trends, said GM labelling is definitely a hot topic in the U.S.


“It has perhaps more traction and a little more media attention right now than it has in the past,” she said. 


She believes other food manufacturers will follow General Mills’ lead and start reformulating and labelling products as GM-free because consumers are demanding it.


But she thinks it will happen with only a certain category of products.


“I would suggest they will probably be products that are typically consumed by young consumers,” said Adams Hutt, who has been the chief quality officer at McDonalds Corp., Coors Brewing Co., H.J. Heinz and Campbell’s Soup.


She said GM products are safe, but mothers are under the impression that children will develop allergies if they consume them.


Sharratt said the Cheerios decision provides more fuel for the GM labelling fire.


“It’s another clear indication that consumer demand is being heard by food companies because it is very loud. The consumer is always right, and General Mills acknowledges that,” she said.


“Companies need to protect their brands, and right now GM ingredients is threatening brand loyalty.”