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Food Fight, Part 1

The food industry is no stranger to regulation—or, for that matter, fighting regulation. There is little argument that the industry should be subjected to relatively strict regulation compared with other industries. Its products, after all, are ingested by humans. But the degree to which its products should be regulated is inherently subjective and often based on controversial or incomplete science (is it sugar, fat, or carbs that are bad for us this week?).

No topic has demonstrated food’s regulatory reality better in recent years than genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Celebrated by the food scientists and reviled by environmental and food safety activists, GMOs are the latest, greatest thorn in the food industry’s side.

The key issue concerns labeling. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the industry should be required to label foods that are genetically modified. And lawmakers have responded in kind. Various states—and now the federal government—have either drafted or enacted legislation that would require companies to specifically label whether a food is, or is not, genetically modified.

Activists and organizations in favor of labeling claim it’s as simple as printing new labels. So why not just do it? In fact, the most prominent pro-GMO labeling organization is called “Just Label It.” Meanwhile, the food industry—citing the cost of monitoring, testing, documenting, and labeling products—has spent millions fighting the legislation in Washington and state capitals across the country.

The actual burden of mandatory labeling can be debated ad nauseam. Studies funded by organizations on either side of the debate have produced figures so wildly disparate that a consensus estimate is unlikely to ever emerge. But the cost—and thus, whether or not label legislation is a reasonable burden—is not the important question.

The real question is: why does the food industry have to fight this battle at all? After all, 88 percent of scientists (and rising) believe that GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption.

The reality is that, for better or worse, lawmakers are not responding to expert concerns, they are responding to (misinformed) public sentiment. In stark contrast with scientific consensus, only one-third of Americans believe GMOs are safe. A full 52 percent believe them to be categorically unsafe.

The food industry is losing—and has nearly lost—the battle of public perception to a smaller, but more vocal, opponent.  Google searches, for instance, of “GMOs” or “GMO safety” are dominated by pro-labeling organizations such as GMO Free USA and The Non-GMO Project. Despite the scientific evidence, pro-labeling organizations have stoked enough fear in the mind of the public to drive legislative action. Having missed its initial window with the public, the industry is now playing catch up by spending millions to directly lobby lawmakers. Compounding the problem, behind-the-scenes lobbying only reinforces the narrative that there is something to hide when it comes to GMO safety.

So what can be done? Well, for one, industry organizations with a dog in the fight need to hit the reset button and begin a concerted effort to inform the public about GMO safety. If public perception is not corrected, lobbying will be hopeless against the rising tide of legislation.

The particularly savvy—or perhaps jaded—reader might be saying, “Even if the legislation becomes law, companies will simply comply with the regulations and pass on the cost to consumers.” And that is very true. Except most mandatory labeling requirements omit organic foods, giving companies that produce exclusively organic foods a huge competitive advantage.

So are organic food companies simply the fortuitous beneficiary of grassroots activism or is there something more at play? Here’s a hint: the head of the aforementioned Just Label It campaign, Gary Hirshberg, also happens to be the co-founder and chairman of Stonyfield Farm, a popular organic yogurt brand.

I’ll explore more in Part 2.

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