By Jim Spencer
The nation's food and farm industries are mounting a furious, last-ditch push against mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, with dozens of Minnesota businesses backing the effort as part of a national coalition.
With Vermont set to become the first state in the country to force GMO labels on foods on July 1, opponents of on-package labeling are running out of time.
"A national solution is needed to prevent a patchwork of 50 different state laws," Golden Valley-based General Mills said in a statement. "If Congress doesn't step in now, that's exactly where we're headed, and that doesn't serve anyone well."
Supporters of labeling laws say consumers have a right to know what's in the food they eat. But food and farm interests counter that labels cast a stigma on genetically engineered foods that have not been proven to be less healthy than organic alternatives.
A publicity blitz against labeling includes a six-figure campaign that is running ads in prime time on network and cable TV in and around the nation's capital.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, funder of the ad campaign, is "working urgently with Congress to pass a national uniform labeling standard and stand up against on-package labeling of GMOs," said spokeswoman Claire Parker.
Food coalition members include Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative and a long list of Minnesota and national trade groups representing the state's massive dairy, corn, egg and turkey growing interests, as well as food giants like General Mills, Land O'Lakes and Hormel.
The food and farm interests do not just want Congress to pass uniform labeling legislation that supplants all state laws with a national standard. It wants that national standard to virtually eliminate mandatory on-package GMO labels like those Vermont would require.
The U.S. House passed a bill that would have done that in 2015. The bill now sits in the Senate Agriculture Committee, where the lobbying battle continues. An attempt to attach a ban on on-package GMO labeling to the recently passed federal budget bill failed. It is unclear whether an inside-the-Beltway ad barrage can now succeed.
"We've known ever since Vermont passed its labeling law that there would be some kind of Hail Mary to take away states' rights," said Heather Kurth Flesland, campaign director of Right to Know Minnesota, which is working to pass a state GMO labeling law based on Vermont's model.
Labeling genetically engineered foods and beverages would change the packaging of tens of thousands of products. A July 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture demonstrated how widespread GMOs have become. Soybeans grown from GMO seeds increased from 17 percent in 1997 to 94 percent in 2015, the USDA said. Corn grown from GMO seeds jumped from single digits to 92 percent in the same period.
Thus the "substantial six-figure" Washington-area ad campaign, which seeks to frame GMO labeling as a policy that will hurt farmers, cost families and keep the hungry malnourished.
"Consumers deserve a uniform standard for labeling food," a female narrator says on one TV ad. "As Congress stalls, harmful state laws are being passed that threaten family farmers and increase food prices by $500 per family."
Some consumer groups are trying to push back. Scott Faber of the group Just Label It called the coalition ad an "unbelievable misrepresentation."
Food labeling advocates still lack the money to make big campaign contributions or finance major ad buys. But they have learned how to lobby assertively. The day before Thanksgiving, the group Food and Water Watch delivered a genetically engineered meal to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Minneapolis office. Among other things, the meal contained a giant severed salmon head, drawing attention to the Food and Drug Administration's Nov. 19 approval to sell genetically engineered salmon.
Faced with competing business and consumer constituencies, Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, both Democrats, choose their words carefully. Asked by the Star Tribune whether they favor a national labeling standard that mandates or forbids on-package GMO labels, neither would say.
"There isn't a Senate bill related to the House-passed bill at this time," Klobuchar said in a statement. "One thing I have learned is that a patchwork of state laws will not work for consumers or producers. Our Senate Agriculture Committee has yet to consider legislation."
Franken noted in a statement that "people feel very passionately about this issue, so I want to make sure we do this in the right way. At the moment, individual states are moving toward a patchwork of labeling regulations, which I don't think is workable." He wants stakeholders to work out a single standard.
Congress may want to spare the food industry from differing state regulations, but a national law that all but eliminates the government's ability to mandate on-package GMO labels could be a hard sell.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recently said she will place a "hold" on the nomination of Dr. Robert Califf to head the FDA because that agency did not require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered fish. One of the country's biggest corporate players, Campbell Soup Co., just announced its support for federal legislation that requires foods and beverages "to be clearly and simply labeled for GMOs."
The Hershey Co.'s recent decision not to use genetically engineered beet sugar in its popular chocolate Kisses hit Minnesota's nation-leading beet sugar producers. It also demonstrated the traction gained by consumers who want to know if foods contain GMOs. National surveys place that number at roughly 90 percent.
In August, Flesland attended a meeting of GMO disclosure advocates. She said 30 states were pushing legislation modeled on the Vermont law. Bills were introduced in Minnesota last legislative session, but did not move out of committee.
Many disclosure advocates say a national law would be fine so long as it lets shoppers determine GMO content by looking at the package.
"We've urged the food industry to work with us on on-package disclosure that gives information in a way that does not disparage GMOs," said Faber of Just Label It.
The food industry is working on a voluntary initiative called SmartLabel that lets shoppers access product details on the Internet. Hormel, General Mills and Land O'Lakes are among 30 companies piloting the project.
Faber and Flesland said most shoppers would not use such a system because it is too difficult to access. On-package disclosure, they added, is the most efficient way to report the presence of GMOs.
A simple designation won't work because opponents of GMOs have successfully "demonized" the term, said Karolyn Zurn. With her husband and sons, Zurn grows genetically engineered sugar beets, corn and soybeans in Callaway, Minn. She says GMO seed has reduced her use of pesticides and allowed her to grow more abundant crops.
At the same time, "any listing of GMO connotes something negative," Zurn said. "I know very well that genetically engineered food is safe. I've fed it to my family for years."
(c)2016 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)