Washington state voters rejected Initiative Measure Number 522 on Nov. 5, which would have required food labelspresumably including dietary supplement labelsto disclose any ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants or animals (also referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).
Washingtons 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.
Today, USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)the voluntary federal labeling system established by OFPAhas created a robust market for meats, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and processed food products that have been grown and processed in accordance with defined organic agricultural practices. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic products in the United States grew 9.5 percent in 2011 compared to 4.7 percent growth for conventionally produced products.
Under NOP, USDA accredits a network of certification agencies to standardize the inspection and monitoring of organic practices. NOP defines different levels of organic content, which provides flexibility for the labeling of products ranging from raw agricultural commodities to more processed, multi-ingredient foods. The specific labeling and wording of organic claims is defined by NOP, providing important consistency for consumers seeking these products in the marketplace.
Several similarities emerge between the organic marketplace of the 1980s and todays market for products that do not contain GMOs. There is growing demand for non-GMO products, but federal regulation has not defined non-GMO. Consumers wanting to purchase non-GMO products buy certified organic products because the absence of GMO ingredients is a requirement of NOP standards.
In the absence of a federal policy, many states are considering laws that would require the labeling of foods containing GMOs. Connecticut and Maine passed laws this year, and at least 24 other states are also considering mandatory labeling laws.
At the federal level, Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-CA), and Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-OR), introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. Like many of the proposed state laws, this legislation would mandate labeling of all GMO foods and ingredients, and would rely almost entirely on guarantees provided by ingredient suppliers. But based on Congressional voting records on recent related bills, this legislation is unlikely to pass.
NOP provides a good template for the creation of a federal program to verify and label the absence of GMOs in foods and other products. This would create an option for companies whose products are processed without GMOs, but that do not meet the additional requirements for full organic production. Companies whose products are labeled as organic may be interested in this additional label as a means of highlighting the absence of GMOs in their products.
Federal administration of a labeling program for GMO absence would also provide an opportunity for recognition and harmonization with similar international labeling programs for GMO absence, as is currently done by NOP for organic commodities and products.
In AHPAs view, a voluntary federal labeling program for GMO absence will provide more consistent information to consumers while minimizing the expense and potential confusion of mandatory labeling laws for GMO presence at either the state or federal level.
Michael McGuffin is president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), and Jane Wilson is director of program development at AHPA.