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Can We Risk Knowing What’s In Our Food?

by Ken Root

We are moving toward Washington, D.C.’s version of a dam breech if federal law does not supersede a Vermont law requiring all foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be divulged on the label.   The implementation date is July first of this year.  Vermont is California East and passed the law (H. 112  See below for web edition) in 2013 with the intent of slapping the Food and Drug Administration for “not independently testing whether GMO ingredients are harmful” rather than taking the word of companies who produce them.  It was an exceptional political maneuver that was immediately challenged in the courts and ruled to be constitutional.  Now members of Congress will have to declare their position on genetically engineered crops, and the resulting food ingredients, because the only way to stop the Vermont law is to pre-empt it with a federal statute.  The bill in Congress is known by some as the “DARK Act”—the acronym standing for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.”

The food industry is trying to play both sides of the table in this game as they desire to use the cheapest and most available ingredients that meet their minimum standards while not wishing to cause negative consumer reaction when they discover the product contains GMO’s. We have already been through a big mess with breakfast cereals made of grains that are non-GMO but have starches and sugars from modified plants.  Defining “pure” and “safe” remain challenging in an era when a growing number of consumers are becoming politically sensitive to ingredients in their food.

The current population of voters in America, that have an influence on policy, ranges from boomers to genXers to millennials.  The “boomer” generation (born 1945 to 1964) generally trusts government.  The genXers (born 1965-1984) are viewed as internally focused and don’t seem to care about much other than themselves.  The key, according to demographers, is the emerging buying and voting power of the millennials (born from 1982 to 2004.)   The oldest are now thirty-three and are very tech savvy with some actually living outside their parent’s basements and paying their own bills.  I compare their awareness of the world to mine when I was twenty-three and just assume they lost a decade somewhere in their privileged upbringing.  Point is, they say they want food to have social responsibility and that is scaring the industry to death.

Members of Congress want this emerging block of voters to adhere to them but there is only a dotted line to money for campaigns and political causes while the aging boomers are the institution that elected them.  Democrats, more than Republicans, are caught in a conflict of “idealism” versus “realism” in the campaign of Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton.  Vermont Senator Sanders is an unabashed socialist who, at seventy-four years old, defies his generation but attracts the youngest voters to his promises of equality, social responsibility and government funded programs.  Ms. Clinton is a realist, in knowing what she can do within the political system, but can’t figure out how to attract the left wing of the party so she can win the nomination.

The next four months will resolve the Vermont food labeling law in legal terms but the reaction during the following year could be an election bender and a career ender for many in the public and private sector.  Congress may pass a law that requires GMO labeling on a national basis.  It’s doubtful that they could do a good job of it over a full two-year term but certainly are very unlikely to put forth good legislation in this short a time period.  Congress may also supersede the Vermont law without putting any stipulation on what is labeled on the short term.  This will alienate the rising millennials who are voting in larger numbers each election. Congress can also do nothing and the Vermont law will go into effect like Proposition 65 in California which requires labeling of foods containing carcinogens. 

The food industry claims it will cost eighty-two billion dollars to implement GMO labeling nationwide.  That number seems hugely inflated unless the food companies build separate processing facilities and begin to produce a parallel line of products that are GMO free. Campbell’s Soup may have already blazed the trail for other giants to follow as they are voluntarily labeling their products as “containing GMO’s” so the consumer can take it or leave it.  The risk is that those who are declining in power and number of teeth will keep eating chicken and noodles from a red and white can and those who are gaining in buying power and numbers will start looking for a new brand that is GMO free. 

Like the squeeze or not, Vermont has put Congress and the food giants on the spot with their food labeling bill.  It is not likely any company will boycott the state and put a bind back on the liberals who re-elect Bernie every six years. It is also not likely that Congress will make a bold statement with pre-emptive legislation that truly puts the issue to rest. 

Below is the Vermont Law in question