Editorial: An important discussion on food labeling

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Twenty years of research have found no reason to warrant mandatory labels for foods that contain genetically modified organisms.

But the effort in Congress to ban state laws mandating labels has little to do with the science behind GMOs, and everything to do with who gets to decide what consumers know about the food on the shelves of their nearby grocery store.

As it stands now, states are allowed to unilaterally mandate that certain information appears on food labels, as long as that information does not interfere with the ingredient and nutritional data required by federal law.

Removing that law only in relation to genetically modified food, as the proposal now before Congress would do, would be a handout to bioengineering companies and large food producers, and an affront to voters and elected representatives in the states that have passed or are considering GMO-labeling laws.

That includes Maine, where in 2014 the Legislature passed a law requiring labels as soon as New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut do the same. Vermont and Connecticut have passed similar legislation, and Maine legislators now are considering a bill that would give the other states more time.

But all that will be moot if Congress passes the inaccurately named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. The House has already approved its version, and a committee on Tuesday (March 1) voted 14-6 to send the Senate version to the floor.

Proponents of the bill say that food labels should be reserved for health and safety information, and that a "state-by-state patchwork of laws" governing GMO labels will confuse consumers and force food companies to create state-specific labels that drive up the cost of food.

However, the proof offered for rising prices is extremely thin, particularly from an industry that changes labels often to reflect the latest consumer trends, and to do business in the many countries that already require labels.

As for consumer confusion, GMO labels are no more troublesome than packaging that advertises "Gluten-Free" or "High Protein" products.

For the latter to be helpful, consumers have to know that gluten is only a problem for those who are allergic, only so much protein is necessary for your body to function correctly, and neither feature is synonymous with "nutritious" or "healthy."

Education is necessary, too, to make sure consumers understand just what it means to purchase food containing GMOs.

While scientific evidence shows that GMOs have no effect on a food's health or nutritional profile, consumers are right to have concerns over the practices of the large-scale agricultural companies that produce them.

If a state wants to help consumers more easily identify those products as a way to differentiate them from the output of small, local, responsible food producers, then it should have that right. There is no reason for the federal government to interfere. By mandating GMO labels, states are not taking away a civil right, or passing dangerously low safety standards.

Instead, despite the misinformation over the science behind GMOs, Maine, Connecticut and Vermont have started an important discussion over the destructive elements of corporate agriculture and the necessity to support local farms.

The federal legislation, however, would end that discussion, and hand a huge victory to large corporations just when we should be questioning their place in the food supply chain.

– The Morning Sentinel (Maine), March 2, 2016


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