What Is In Your Food? The Genetically Modified Food Labeling Debate

Christopher M. Dube
Director, Corporate Department
Published: Business NH Magazine
April 15, 2014

The NH Legislature, like others across the nation, joined the debate over mandating labeling of genetically modified (GM) food and food containing GM ingredients sold within its borders. This legislative session, the House killed a bill that would have required such labeling, but the state Senate sent to interim study another version that more closely resembles bills passed in Connecticut and Maine.

Genetically modified food and food containing GM ingredients have been in the marketplace since the mid-1990s. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of conventional food manufactured in the United States is GM or contains GM ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. While the European Union requires that GM food be labeled as such, however, the United States does not.

Certified organic foods are prohibited from including any genetically modified ingredients and increasingly manufacturers of conventional non-GM foods are choosing to label their products with third party certifications that they are “Non-GMO.”

The GM Battle
A failed labeling initiative in California in 2012 increased awareness of the issue, lending fuel to voter initiatives and labeling legislation in more than 25 other states.

Proponents of mandatory labeling of GM foods in the United States advocate that consumers have a right to know what is in their food. They claim eating GM food can have adverse health effects. According to The Non-GMO Project, an organization that certifies non-GMO products, 30 countries have either significant restrictions or outright bans on the production of GM food. It claims the FDA approved commercial production of GM food in the U.S. based on studies conducted by the companies who created them.

Opponents believe this movement is driven by emotion, not science, and could mislead consumers into believing that ingredients derived from GM plants are unsafe or unhealthy, contradicting, they say, scientific peer-reviewed research.  According to a 2012 statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “current efforts to require labeling of genetically modified foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous.”

The debate reflects the complexity of the issue. Can states effectively monitor and enforce labeling requirements and, if so, at what cost? Can labeling be effective if certain products such as alcohol, meat, or oils produced from GM plants are exempt from labeling requirements? What will the financial impact be on small scale farmers and food producers and how will that impact retail pricing?

The NH Debate
The NH labeling bill (SB 411) would have required that the words “Genetically Engineered” appear conspicuously on the front of packaging of genetically modified raw agricultural commodities or on the shelf for products that are not packaged. It would have also required labeling products containing genetically modified ingredients.

GM food failing to display the required labeling could be fined and recalled. Restaurants, food donated to food banks, and alcoholic beverages were exempt.

Even if passed, the language of the bill made its implementation contingent on passage of similar legislation in at least four other northeastern states prior to 2018.

Labeling Efforts in New England
Connecticut and Maine passed labeling bills in 2013, although they take an “I will if you will” approach. The Connecticut legislation requires passage in four of the other northeastern states. The Maine legislation requires passage in five nearby states, including Massachusetts and NH.

The Vermont House passed a bill last year requiring labeling by July 2015. Although the bill does not require passage of similar legislation in other states, the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee is considering inclusion of such a requirement.

A Federal or State Issue?
There are advocates on both sides of the labeling issue who favor federal standards over state-by-state efforts, recognizing most food is not produced and consumed in a single state. Many believe a single set of standards would be more effective. Others caution that state mandates would violate the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

It is clear that the issue of labeling debate will continue, but whether enough states can pass laws to trigger implementation remains to be seen.