GM labelling moves forward . . . but when it’s finally done no one will care

In the past, your humble columnist suggested that government/industry/retailers just get on with labelling food products containing GMO.

In the past, your humble columnist suggested that government/industry/retailers just get on with labelling food products that contain GMO ingredients. My point was that foods containing such ingredients were so pervasive that few consumers would notice another label and most would care less. It now seems my suggestion is coming to fruition, but in a convoluted way in the United States.

The momentum seems to have been instigated by the state of Vermont – that jurisdiction enacted a law that requires mandatory GMO labelling. This created a conundrum, as the country could see the establishment of different laws in different states, thereby creating a marketing nightmare for food processors and retailers. To derail such state initiatives, Congress put forward legislation that would encourage voluntary GMO labelling and outlaw any state legislation on such labelling.

This would establish a national standard and create a level playing field for food marketers across the country. This seemed like a common sense approach but alas, it was not to be. The proposed legislation was stalled in the Senate by Democrats who wanted mandatory labelling. This worsened the situation for food marketers, as it would embolden other states such as California and New York to enact their own labelling legislation.

To deal with an anticipated patchwork of GMO labelling laws, at least two large commercial food processors and marketers decided to go ahead and label their products whether it is required or not. General Mills and the Campbell Soup Company have announced they will put a label on any product that has a GMO ingredient. Considering that so many of their products contain some connection to canola, corn, sugar beets, and soybeans, it would mean virtually all of their products would have a GMO label.

What that decision means is that both companies are withdrawing from an industry coalition that lobbied against any GMO labelling. That decision may be the harbinger of things to come as other food processors may also decide that it’s better to join them than to fight a futile public relations war. The companies involved continue to support the science that proves that GM ingredients are perfectly safe and nutritious and no different from the same non-GMO ingredients. Some do want any future mandatory labelling legislation to address the matter of non-GMO product labelling, the intent being that those products should be subject to testing to prove that their products contain no GMO ingredients. A somewhat ironic twist to the issue.

These actions by a couple of major food processors may well create a snowball effect with others getting on the labelling bandwagon. You can rest assured that fast-food chains will be looking at how they can get involved. It was noted that one of the food processors had experimented with putting a label on one of their products indicating that it did not contain GMO ingredients. It was found that such a label neither increased nor decreased sales. That would give credence to my view that in the end most consumers don’t really care. The reality is that although most consumers like to claim they are in favour of politically-correct trends like GMO labelling, organic foods, antibiotic-free, cage-free etc.. but most vote with their wallets and buy food products based on price. A recent survey on egg buying found that despite numerous life-style brand produced eggs for sale, 90 per cent of consumers still bought regular eggs because of price.

So what’s in store for Canada in regards to mandatory GMO labelling? In a word, it’s somewhat inevitable. Mandatory labelling is a trendy politically-correct idea that would certainly receive the support of federal Liberals, whose political base is in the big cities. They would be in good company and politically astute as most city folks favour GMO labelling even though most would still buy non-labelled products if they were cheaper. Some observers note that enforcing mandatory labelling cannot work in Canada because so many of our food products are processed in the United States. That’s true but processors and marketers have shown that they are quite willing to make adjustments to labelling to exploit marketing opportunities – I cite the use of bilingual labels and metric measurements on imported food products manufactured in the US.

The biggest losers with GMO labelling will be the usual cabal of self-appointed consumer and green lobby groups. They used the labelling issue to fear-monger the naïve into making donations to their groups. They will now have to invent some other dubious cause to dupe the gullible.

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