GMO Labeling: What We Can Learn From Organic Labeling

By Jane Wilson and Michael McGuffin Comments
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Washington state voters rejected Initiative Measure Number 522 on Nov. 5, which would have required food labels—presumably including dietary supplement labels—to disclose any ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants or animals (also referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).

Washington’s vote closely mirrors the vote last year in California on a similar initiative, Proposition 37, which was defeated by a similar margin. Both initiatives enjoyed early voter support, attracted millions of dollars in spending by both sides, and ultimately failed.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) has been working since July 2007 to find a practical solution for the labeling of products with GMOs and expressed formal support in 2007 for labeling these products. Following the California vote in 2013, AHPA promoted the creation of a federal safe harbor for accurately labeling foods and supplements with the presence or absence of genetically engineered ingredients.

 AHPA continues to promote consumers' right to be informed when GMOs are in the foods they choose, and federal legislation that creates a standard for voluntary disclosure of absence of GMOs seems to be the most pragmatic approach. The labeling of organic products provides a good example of how this could work.

The creation of a federal organic labeling program was initiated to address the challenges presented by the patchwork of local organic certification systems. The U.S. market for organic products grew in the 1980s, sparking the creation of a number of state agencies and private-sector organizations that verified organic products.

Most of these organic certifying organizations were local with little recognition of their certifications outside of their regions. This became a bigger problem as organic foods were shipped to other markets to meet growing demand. Because no federal and few state regulations defined the term “organic," multiple standards were applied to the industry. This also contributed to consumers questioning the credibility of organic products. These issues prompted the industry to recognize the importance of a federal solution, leading the U.S. Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990.

Importantly, OFPA created a program with voluntary participation from food marketers. If this legislation had proposed mandatory labeling of non-organic foods it almost certainly would not have been adopted by Congress.

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