Food giants discuss lobbying for national labeling programWith Washington State on the verge of a ballot initiative that would require labeling of some foods containing genetically engineered ingredients and other states considering similar measures, some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.
By: Stephanie Strom , New York Times New Service
With Washington State on the verge of a ballot initiative that would require labeling of some foods containing genetically engineered ingredients and other states considering similar measures, some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.
Executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling, attended a meeting in January in Washington convened by the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussions of major issues. The inclusion of Wal-Mart has buoyed hopes among labeling advocates that the big food companies will shift away from tactics like those used to defeat Proposition 37 in California last fall, when corporations spent more than $40 million to oppose the labeling of genetically modified foods.
“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” says Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.
Instead of quelling the demand for labeling, the defeat of the California measure has spawned a ballot initiative in Washington State and legislative proposals in Connecticut, Vermont, New Mexico and Missouri, and a swelling consumer boycott of some organic or “natural” brands owned by major food companies.
Hirshberg, who attended the January meeting, says he knew of roughly 20 states considering labeling requirements.
For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States — like cereals, snacks and salad dressings — have contained ingredients from plants with DNA that has been manipulated in a laboratory. The Food and Drug Administration, other regulators and many scientists say these foods pose no danger. But as Americans ask more pointed questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.
Impending FDA approval of a genetically modified salmon and the Agriculture Department’s consideration of genetically engineered apples have further intensified the debate.
“We’re at a point where, this summer, families could be sitting at their tables and wondering whether the salmon and sweet corn they’re about to eat has been genetically modified,” says Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. “The fish has really accelerated concerns.”
Hirshberg said some company representatives wanted to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to proceed with federal labeling.
“The FDA is not only employing 20-year-old, and we think obsolete, standards for materiality, but there is a general tendency on the part of the FDA to be resistant to change,” he says. “With an issue as polarized and politicized as this one, it’s going to take a broad-based coalition to crack through that barrier.”
Morgan Liscinsky, an FDA spokeswoman, says the agency considered the “totality of all the data and relevant information” when forming policy guidance.
“We’ve continued to evaluate data as it has become available over the last 20 years,” she says.
Neither Hirshberg nor Benbrook would identify other companies that participated in the talks, but others confirmed some of the companies represented. Caroline Starke, who represents the Meridian Institute, says she cannot comment on a specific meeting or participants.
Finance and research
Benbrook and consumer advocates say the federal agencies responsible for things like labeling have relied on research financed by companies that make genetically modified seeds.
“If there is a documented issue with this overseas, it could have a devastating impact on the U.S. food system and agriculture,” Benbrook says. “The FDA isn’t going to get very far with international governments by saying Monsanto and Syngenta told us these foods are safe and we believed them.”
What has excited proponents of labeling most is Wal-Mart’s participation in the meeting. The retailer came under fire from consumer advocates last summer for its decision to sell a variety of genetically engineered sweet corn created by Monsanto.
Because Wal-Mart is the largest grocery retailer, a move by the company to require suppliers to label products could be influential in developing a national labeling program.