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VIDEO: GMO proponents warn of labeling costs

FARGO, N.D. -- Voluntary labeling for genetically modified organisms in human food is the only legal alternative, domestically and internationally. That's the opinion of Thomas Redick, a St. Louis, Mo., lawyer, whose clients include grain growers...

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Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. - Voluntary labeling for genetically modified organisms in human food is the only legal alternative, domestically and internationally.

That’s the opinion of Thomas Redick, a St. Louis, Mo., lawyer, whose clients include grain growers, grain traders and grocery manufacturers. Redick spoke at a recent Bioindustry Summit in Fargo, N.D., hosted by the North Dakota State University Extension Service. Redick and others at the conference said a new mandatory GMO labeling law in Vermont that goes into effect July 1 will cost consumers $400 to $4,000 per family.

Charlie Nelson, president of KLN Family Brands of Perham, Minn., says his company’s candy and nut brands would face extra costs in tracking and segregating products for GMO status, and said the country can’t afford state-by-state labeling.

Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois nutrition and food researcher and promoter of biotech foods, said the law would create “chaos in the food industry,” and that it’s a strategy GMO opponents are using to get GMO off the food market.

Redick agreed.

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“Once you label it, it can be targeted with an activist campaign to drive it off your product shelf,’ he said.

Several major food manufacturers have said they need to get rid of GMOs in their food. “I think there is a slippery slope that this Vermont law is pushing us down already,” Redick says. “It’s not without risk for those food companies.” Major pet food manufacturers are worried about being “dissed” for GMO products not eaten by humans.

Market wrench He said Whole Foods Market, the national grocery store chain, has gone to a 0.9 tolerance for GMOs, and wants to test the food they sell. That’s throwing a wrench into the marketing of non-GMO clients. Non-GMO clients buy seed at 1 percent impurity tolerance. Organic producers buy seed that allows 2 to 5 percent toleration. “Nobody tests for GMOs in organic,” Redick says.

He thinks there are not enough non-GMO soybeans and corn to go around. Dairy giant Deans Foods had a product line of non-GMO and organic soy milk but had to go to China to meet demand for non-GMO beans. Activists didn’t like sourcing the beans from China, but “that’s the question looming: do we trust China?” Redick asks.

The law is designed ostensibly to protect and inform people but “is actually going to mislead them and defraud them,” Redick says.

Curiously, the Vermont law exempts the entire organic industry - all farmers markets and anything sold in a restaurant. “I happen to know that in Vermont at the end of the season, farmers markets might go up to 50 percent bT sweet corn,” he said, referring to the genetic modification for Bacillus thuringensis, which protects corns from some insect pests. “It’s the only way they can sell clean corn, and they can still market it as no-spray. There you go: people can eat GMOs they don’t even know they’re eating, right?”

Farmers markets

The organic industry promotes itself as GM free, but “never has been, never will be,” Redick said.

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“Even Whole Foods understands that,” he said. “They put a 0.9 percent tolerance on their food, including organic food. They started finding their organic soy was 5 to 40 percent (GM). Nobody in the (U.S. Department of Education) would bring that up: you don’t get tested in the organic system.”

The U.S. Constitution affords the right to free speech, as well as the right not to say anything you don’t want to say. “You can’t force companies to put something on food labels unless you have a legitimate state interest,” he said.

Enforcing the labels will be a challenge. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act already has enough language on food labeling for things like salt and fat, and that should be enough. The federal Commerce Clause may govern the case, because the extra regulation may mean fewer players will be able to compete, creating anti-trust problems. “Oligopolies are not the best for price controls in these industries,” Redick said.

One question is whether the Vermont law will create violations of the World Trade Organization laws. “The short answer is yes,” he said. Redick thinks Canada and Mexico are two of the likely countries to challenge the Vermont law through the WTO.

The WTO agreements have sanitary and phytosanitary agreements which involve scientific evidence of health effects which must be proven before trade can be disrupted, and there is no evidence of negative health impacts from GM crops. Europeans would like to put GMs under barriers dictated by consumer preferences, under a provision called Technical Barriers to Trade, and not because of scientifically-proven dangers.

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