Late last week, reports started surfacing that the USDA is in the process of creating a certification process for companies wanting to include a label indicating their products are free of genetically modified ingredients. The information comes after a letter from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was leaked to the public. The letter did not include a lot of details about the potential label and certification process, but the USDA has promised that more information is forthcoming.
In the meantime, here’s what we know about this GMO label (…and what we don’t know yet.)
The Label Certifies that A Product is GMO-free, Not That It Contains GMOs
So, it isn’t really a “GMO label,” it is a GMO-free label. GMO-free labels aren’t something new – there are already organizations that will certify that products are GMO-free. But it isn’t hard to imagine that a label from the USDA carries a lot more weight, and definitely a lot more credibility. In fact, the USDA already has guidelines for companies that want to somehow indicate on the product that their may or may not be GMO products used. You can view those guidelines here.
As an example, this national GMO-free label would work in a similar way to the organic label. If a farmer wants to do so, he can apply to the USDA to become certified. The USDA will check to determine whether or not he meets the standards. If he does, his farm becomes certified and he gets to use the little label on all of his crops. Remember: any certification from the USDA is going to come for price.
The same concept would apply to the GMO-free label. If a food producer wants to use the label, it will have to apply to the USDA for certification. The USDA will then determine whether or not the food product is definitely made without genetically engineered ingredients. If so, the producer will get to slap the little “USDA certified GMO-free” label on its products. Again, the USDA will charge the food producer for the certification and use of the label. It is also likely that we will see, just as with organic products bearing the organic label, GMO-free products will be sold at a premium.
The USDA’s Label Won’t Trump State Labeling Requirements
This is a little disappointing, because the patchwork of state laws currently being put in place by state legislatures and ballot proposals won’t be pre-empted by the UDSA’s GMO-free label. This is because the USDA is implementing the program voluntarily and under its own authority, not some type of legislation.
Consider how hard the current patchwork of state laws is for a nationally recognized company, such as Kraft. Each of the state laws is significantly different, so in order for Kraft to comply with the laws, it first has to check the definitions in each state, which can different substantially, to determine whether or not their products fit under the definition. Then, if the definition fits, the company has to figure out how to comply with the labeling requirement in each state. The tricky thing is, each state may require a different type of label for the exact same product. That makes the cost of doing business, and ultimately the cost of the product, much higher than if there was one national standard.
Clearly, the solution is to enact some type of legislation that would control for labels in all states. That’s exactly what Congressman Mike Pompeo from Kansas is hoping to accomplish. He has proposed a bill in the House that would create a national certification program from GMO-free labeling that would override all of the different state laws requiring GMO labeling.
Whether Representative Pompeo is able to move he bill along, and how a Congressional vote would play out, remains to be seen. But I can’t help but think that the USDA’s certification program might actually help with passage of the bill, especially if Americans generally accept it as a solution to the contentious labeling debate.
There’s a Mysterious Company Asking for the Label
Secretary Vilsack’s leaked letter makes references to a “leading global company” that actually requested that the USDA create and implement such a program to certify GMO-free labels. Why? Because the company wants to put these labels on its own product. So far, I haven’t seen any guesses as to who this company is, or even the type of products it sells. Nonetheless, I do find it interesting that a company that doesn’t use GMOs has suddenly jumped on the bandwagon of supporting a GMO-free label. Such a company could profit from mandatory GMO labeling, because it wouldn’t have to use such a label. On the other hand, this type of certification from the USDA means they’ll have to now pay for that benefit.
This Isn’t a Betrayal by the USDA
Based on the initial reaction to the news that the USDA is creating a national certification program for GMO-free products has made some people feel like the USDA is betraying US farmers and biotechnology.
Certainly, such a national certification process just means farmers are going to have to continue to play advocate and continue to support the use of biotechnology in agriculture. In other words, it means my job here isn’t done. And there is plenty of room for the GMO-free labeling to have negative marketing consequences for products not carrying such a label. The organic label is the perfect example – many people believe if a product carries the USDA organic label, no pesticides were every sprayed on the crop, but that’s false.
However, as I wrote about before, there has already been a national push by some pro-agriculture interest groups to get legislation like this passed. And the federal government has maintained the position that a GMO label is unnecessary, because the currently available crops are safe.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t think we need GMO or GMO-free labels. I think they’re just meant to scare people. I’m disappointed when I see companies use this as a marketing tactic. I certainly plan on using my buying power to support companies that do not use such a label. But, quite frankly, having one national standard label through the USDA is far better than having the mismatched and patchwork mess of labels currently cropping up state-by-state.
GMO Labeling Advocates Still Aren’t Satisfied…Or Even Remotely Happy
Okay, some of them are claiming this is a victory and some of them are not. I’m sure once they realize that the label is GMO-free, rather than a straight GMO label, they won’t be so happy.
But why not?
Surely, if the people pushing for mandatory labels just want to avoid eating GMOs, then this is the perfect solution! They can just purchase food products that have the label and avoid the whole mess of pouring millions of dollars into labeling requirements on a state-by-state basis.
As I’ve also written about before, numerous times, the whole “right to know” campaign has very little to do with the public’s so-called “right to know” what’s in their food. Rather, a mandatory GMO label, which would be incredibly difficult and costly to implement, acts as a scare marketing technique. If GMOs are as safe as the USDA and FDA claim they are, then why the heck would you need a label for them? That’s really the point here. They are safe and we don’t need a label. The “right to know” crowd is just hoping that such a label would act as a deterrent for sales and, eventually, lead to an outright ban of GMO crops. A GMO-free label doesn’t necessarily have that effect, though it still has some pitfalls, and hopefully will preclude that from happening in the future.
I’ll keep on this story….
Suzy Graven says
Well written piece.