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Award-winning author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food
Voluntary vs. Mandatory GMO Labeling: Apples and Oranges
By Colin O'Neil, Director of Government Affairs, Center for Food Safety
March 28th, 2014

We often hear that there’s no reason to label genetically engineered foods because companies can already voluntarily label whether or not their products contain GMOs. This disingenuous claim was parroted by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg just this week in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

It is grossly misleading for industry—let alone the FDA—to continue trumpeting the notion that voluntary labeling will solve the overwhelming consumer demand for labeling in the marketplace. In the 13 years that FDA has allowed companies to voluntarily label foods produced using genetic engineering, not one single company has done so.

Private, voluntary labels like “GMO-Free” are all well and good, but can such tactics be a stand-in for mandatory labeling of GMO foods? The answer, quite simply, is a resounding no. It’s not because voluntary labeling is inherently bad, but rather because they accomplish two very different things—it’s comparing apples to oranges.  

Let’s take the example of orange juice from concentrate. FDA requires that juice made from concentrate be labeled as such. This is because FDA has a legal duty to make sure consumers aren’t deceived when buying food products. Consumers have a right to know how their food is produced; in this case, is it from concentrate, or freshly squeezed? 

FDA does not require orange juice from concentrate to be labeled because it is somehow unsafe. If a product is unsafe, FDA doesn’t label it, they take it off the shelves. While many find FDA’s inadequate assessments of GE foods cause for concern, safety is not the central question when it comes to labeling policy. FDA requires the orange juice from concentrate to be labeled in order to be transparent, and provide information to the consumer so they know exactly what they’re purchasing and feeding their families. Foods produced with genetic engineering should be labeled in a similar fashion, for similar reasons. The very patentability of GE foods demonstrates that they are materially different from conventional foods and should be labeled accordingly. A product that is patentable cannot be both “novel” for patent purposes yet “materially similar” to existing substances for labeling purposes.

Voluntary GMO-free labeling, on the other hand, is a marketing tool.  It’s a claim that brands like Cheerios are realizing they can profit from, just like other food trend-related statements like “made with whole grain” and “now with more fiber!”  While this can be a useful tool for companies and consumers, it’s not a replacement for mandatory labeling, as is required by FDA for nearly 4,000 other ingredients, additives, and processes. Mandatory disclosure of these kinds of things is actually a legal obligation of FDA, and in the case of labeling, it’s fallen down on the job.

Relying solely on voluntary non-GMO claims by some companies on some products, will never give consumers a full picture of what they’re eating. This means that consumers are left confused and deceived, which FDA has a mandate to prevent. Imagine an orange juice aisle where a few of the bottles say “not from concentrate” and the rest say nothing. Does that mean the orange juice not labeled is from concentrate? Or that the company simply chose not to label it as “not from concentrate”? It would be impossible for consumers to know, because voluntarily advertising the absence of something does not create nearly the same level of transparency as having to disclose its presence. That absence of information means consumers aren’t getting the full story – and that’s not ok. 

What about voluntary labeling of products that do contain GE ingredients, would that be enough? Well, as explained above, it has been 13 years since FDA first allowed companies to voluntarily disclose the GE ingredients in their products and during that time zero companies have stepped up to the plate. The policy has done nothing to quell consumer demand for mandatory labeling and consumers are more confused than ever (for instance, despite common misconceptions, seedless watermelon is not the result of genetic engineering).

While absence claims will remain helpful marketing tools for companies, mandatory labeling is the lawful, responsible, and foreseeable path forward. 26 states introduced mandatory labeling bills last year with 2 passing. Zero states have passed voluntary labeling bills. 64 countries have policies requiring the labeling of GE foods, even countries where GE crops are a large part of the economy, like Brazil.

It’s time for the U.S. to adopt the policy that actually makes sense: mandatory labeling of GE foods. FDA should give the public the information that they deserve and want, not make misleading excuses by promoting voluntary policies that neither protect their rights nor address the problem.

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