Food Fight: Businesses, Consumers, & Advocacy Groups Square Off Over GMO Labeling

Food Fight: Businesses, Consumers, & Advocacy Groups Square Off Over GMO Labeling

The battle over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the US food supply has raged on for years. The fight pits advocacy groups, such as Just Label It and The Center for Food Safety, against major crop and food producers such as Monsanto and PepsiCo. Advocacy groups argue that consumers have a right to know. Industry groups opine that two decades of research has suggested GMOs are safe and thus labels are unnecessary and will scare consumers.

GMO Labeling Rules

Prior to 2014, the food manufacturing industry had shut down most efforts to pass laws requiring disclosure of the presence of GMOs. For example, a 2012 ballot measure in California was defeated at the polls; spending by the industry against the measure totaled $46 million, and Monsanto, Dupont, and Pepsico were the top contributors. The debate finally came to a head in 2014, when Vermont passed a law requiring food labels on any foods that contained GMOs, while excluding meat and dairy products from the labeling requirement. Due to the prospect of food manufacturers producing two different types of packaging for Vermont and non-Vermont markets, some companies chose to roll out packaging that discloses GMO content across the nation, while others pulled products from Vermont shelves. Concerned at the prospect of a patchwork of state laws that threatened to emerge, food companies lobbied Congress to pass a bill creating a national standard. In July 2016, the US Congress did just this, passing The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law, which amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require labeling for GMOs present in food, while also negating Vermont’s law.

After the passage of the law, the USDA began administrating the formulation of the labeling program. The department released the proposed guidelines and potential labels to be included on packaging on May 3rd, 2018 and closed the public comment period after 60 days. Due to the USDA failing to release the final rule by July 29th (the deadline imposed by the aforementioned law), the Center for Food Safety initiated a lawsuit to force the department to release the final ruling according to a court-mandated timeline.

Currently, the proposed guidelines suggest three labeling options for companies to use. All options use the phrase “bioengineered” (BE) instead of “GMO” to avoid any negative connotations associated with the latter.

  1. Companies may include a phrase on packaging such as “bioengineered food”, “contains a bioengineered ingredient”, “may contain a bioengineered food ingredient”, and other similar wording.
  2. Companies may use a sticker with the letters “BE”.
  3. Companies may include a Quick Response (QR) code on their product in lieu of the BE sticker or “bioengineered” phrase. The code would direct to a company website with information about whether the product is BE.

In addition, products that could have been obtained through conventional breeding for desirable traits and products containing no modified genetic material (e.g., highly processed oils and sugars) are exempt from the labeling requirement.

Market Response

Response to the new law has been mixed. Most major food companies initially opposed the labeling of GMOs due to concerns about consumers being scared of consuming GMOs despite an emerging scientific consensus that they pose no greater health risks than non-GMO food. However, some companies supported labeling laws: for instance, Campbell’s own research had shown that many of the fears of consumers abandoning food labeled as containing GMOs were overstated. Despite previous opposition to similar laws, most major food manufacturers such as Archer Daniels Midland, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo supported the bill to make GMO labels mandatory after its proposal; the position shift may be due to companies’ fears of a patchwork of state laws emerging, which would make compliance with all applicable laws difficult.

While most companies have supported the law as it stands, many environmental groups have been unsatisfied with the law, worrying that it doesn’t inform consumers well enough. Just Label It, an advocacy group promoting clear GMO labeling on foods, noted that only about 55% of consumers consider themselves knowledgeable of the term “bioengineered”, but 72% were familiar with the term “genetically modified food”. The word “bioengineered” may confuse consumers used to the phrase “GMO” to describe genetically modified food.

In the end, it seems that consumers may feel more confident in the food they buy if they believe that food manufacturers have nothing to hide by labeling bioengineered food. In 2017, after the passage of the Vermont GMO labeling law, two scientists studied its effect on consumers’ perceptions of the safety of GMO foods via a survey. Surprisingly, they found that after the law took effect, consumers were less likely to be concerned about the presence of GMOs in their food.

Want to Learn More?

Don’t worry, we have you covered! For additional information and analysis of US industry trends, see Processed Food: United States, a report published by the Freedonia Focus Reports division of The Freedonia Group.

This report forecasts to 2022 US processed food demand and shipments in nominal US dollars at the manufacturer level. Total demand and shipments are segmented by product in terms of:

  • meat, poultry, and seafood
  • grains and oilseeds
  • dairy products
  • bakery and related products
  • animal food
  • processed fruits and vegetables
  • sugar and confectionary products
  • other processed food such as condiments and sauces, egg substitutes, frozen specialty foods, peanut butter, roasted nuts, and spices

To illustrate historical trends, total demand, total shipments, the various segments, personal consumption expenditures on food and meals by type, and trade are provided in annual series from 2007 to 2017.

Excluded from the scope of this report are ready-to-drink beverages such as bottled water, carbonated soft drinks, and fluid milk; beverage syrups; and unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Inedible byproducts of animal slaughtering, such as bones and hides, are not included in demand or shipment totals for meat, poultry, and seafood products. Re-exports of processed food are excluded from trade and demand figures.

While you’re there, check out our related reports, which include:

About the Author

Owen Stuart is a Market Research Analyst with Freedonia Focus Reports. He conducts research and writes a variety of Focus Reports, and his experience as an analyst covers multiple industries.