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Food labeling is a hot topic

When my older sister and I were kids, it was always a treat to get to stay overnight with Grandma and Grandpa Peterson. After all, they lived in the city — the city of Larimore. All of the sounds and smells were different than the farm. You'd even occasionally hear a police siren or the 9 o'clock whistle at night.

I remember one breakfast where I was showing off my reading skills by examining the corn flakes cereal box, and I proudly told Grandma that corn flakes had "no added fat." Grandma chuckled and said "dear, there is no fat in corn flakes to begin with." I now fondly remember this as my first "truth in food labeling" moment.

Truth in labeling is a hot legal topic, and it is a topic with several interesting perspectives. From an agricultural producer's perspective, this past week marked the beginning of the "Peel Back the Label" campaign (see www.peelbackthelabel.org). According to the website, "the typical grocery store stocks almost 40,000 items on its shelves, most of which have labels describing the product." Peel back the label is a campaign alleging that several labels "may not be giving you the whole truth about your food." The campaign purports to expose fear-based labeling, which allegedly props up profits for food manufacturers but comes at a greater cost to consumers.

The "Peel Back the Label" campaign is based upon claims that food manufacturers use deceptive food labeling to distinguish their product in the marketplace. Amongst the alleged culprits are examples of water being labeled as "gluten free," tomatoes being labeled as "GMO-free," and peanut butter being labeled as having "no high-fructose corn syrup."

A former U.S. senator once purportedly said "only one type of person should be concerned about inexpensive food: those who eat." Humor aside, inexpensive food is a neglected topic in our marketplace of ideas. Farmers are keenly aware of what the cost of wheat, corn, beans and other foods are. And labeling of food is directly related to the cost of food.

Another related topic to food labeling is food safety. This is where the topic gets more controversial. The introduction of GMOs into the marketplace enhanced consumer awareness of the safety of the food they consume. And the introduction of GMOs also was responsible for the boom in "organic produce" and other related concepts.

"Peel Back the Label" was launched by America's dairy farmers, according to an AGWEEK wire report. Per that report, nearly 70 percent of consumers say they look to front-of-label claims when making food purchasing decisions. This is nothing new. Even pre-GMO days, Grandma Peterson knew that about the corn flakes label, but back then you weren't as likely to see agricultural producers actually responsible for a campaign to fight back.

Also in the news last week was a related matter. The GE (genetically engineered) Labeling Act was passed by the United States Congress in 2016. Also known as the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, it is a federal law that immediately preempted all state laws addressing the issue. The GE Labeling Act requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered; and establish such requirements and procedures as the Secretary determines necessary to carry out the standard."

Last week, the Center for Food Safety actually filed a suit against the USDA, and did so in federal court in California. The allegation is that the USDA violated the GE Labeling Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to conduct and release a study ordered by the GE Labeling Act and also to hold required public comments periods by July 29, 2017. It's a fascinating lawsuit, and it will probably not be something that is quickly resolved.

Food labeling will continue to be a hot topic. It will be interesting to see what is next!

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