The biotech industry, led by Monsanto, will soon descend on the state of Washington to try their best to defeat I-522, a citizens’ ballot initiative to require mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Voters should prepare themselves for an onslaught of discredited talking points, nonsensical red herrings, and outright lies designed to convince voters that they shouldn’t have the right to know what’s in the food they eat.
Topping the biotech industry’s propaganda playlist will no doubt be this old familiar tune: that requiring retailers to verify non-GMO ingredients in order to label them will be burdensome and costly, and the additional cost will be passed on to consumers who are already struggling to feed their families.
Playing to consumers’ fears of higher food costs makes good strategic sense, especially in tough economic times. But the argument doesn’t hold water, say food manufacturers and retailers who already have systems in place for verifying non-GMO, as well as rBGH-free, trans fat-free, country of origin and fair trade. The system involves using chain-of-custody, legally binding affidavits, not expensive testing.
“We have used the affidavit system repeatedly, without undue burden or cost,” said Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets. PCC, the largest consumer-owned natural food retail co-operative in the United States, uses the affidavit system to ensure their chocolate isn’t made using child slave labor, their dairy products don’t come from animals subjected to rBGH hormones, and that all seafood was harvested using sustainable sources and practices.
Trader Joe’s, a privately held chain of nearly 400 U.S. stores, confirmed that the company’s private label products, under the names Trader Joe’s, Jose’s and Ming’s, are GMO-free, though the company doesn’t label them as such. In an email, a company spokesperson said:
“When developing products containing ingredients likely to come from genetically modified sources, we have the supplier of the product in question perform the necessary research to provide documentation that the suspect ingredients are from non-GMO sources.
This documentation is in the form of affidavits, identity-preserved certification of seed stock, and third-party lab results from testing of the ingredients in question.”
Trader Joe’s performs random audits of items with suspect ingredients, using an outside, third-party lab to perform the testing, the company said. Trader Joe’s system is not unlike that of the USDA, which requires sworn statements from food producers to certify organic foods. The agency requires test samples from approximately 5 percent of products, all of which must be GMO-free in order to be certified organic. For the other 95 percent, the agency relies solely on sworn statements.
Clif Bar & Co. also requires affidavits from ingredient suppliers demonstrating they can meet the company’s stringent non-GMO requirements.
Monsanto would have you believe that verifying and labeling for non-GMO ingredients is a costly and burdensome affair, but the fact that Trader Joe’s, known for its discount prices, can provide GMO-free private label products, which reportedly account for over two-thirds of the company’s estimated annual $9 billion in sales, takes the wind out of the “burdensome” argument. That leaves the cost of adding another line of ink to a label. Trader Joe’s doesn’t yet label its private label products as GMO- free, but the company cites a lack of clear labeling guidelines from U.S. governmental agencies as the reason it doesn’t label, not cost.
Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project confirmed what retailers who use the affidavit system said: “An affidavit system like what’s proposed in I-522 is a powerful way to have a significant impact on the food supply with minimal cost.”
How does the affidavit system work?
Companies selling non-GMO foods provide a sworn statement (i.e. an affidavit) to the retailer that the ingredients used are sourced from crops that aren’t intentionally genetically engineered. The affidavit, unless deliberately dishonest, protects the manufacturer and the retailer from liability in the case of unintentional GMO contamination.
Retailers are responsible only for labeling a few raw commodities that may contain GE ingredients, such as sweet corn, papaya, or squash. In these cases, the retailer can either stick a simple label on the bin or ask their supplier for an affidavit stating that the crop is GMO free.
Under this system, no costly testing for GE ingredients is required. No burdensome government oversight is necessary. The system is inherently designed to protect small grocers and retailers, at no additional cost to the customer or taxpayer.
The beauty of the affidavit system is that it offers retailers and manufacturers a simple, easy way to comply with a regulatory model that provides consumers with the right to know what’s in their food without increasing grocery costs. Even for manufacturers who might otherwise seek to pass on the trivial expense of relabeling to consumers, empirical studies show that the fear of losing customers in the competitive food industry will be a deterrent to raising prices. Did food costs change when we labeled calorie content?
Is the system reliable? Retailers say yes. Why would manufacturers intentionally deceive retailers only to open themselves up to a lawsuit and public relations nightmare? And the system has a proven track record. PCC Natural Markets, Trader Joe’s and Clif Bar all use affidavits, as do other manufacturers who use them for country-of-origin and no-trans fat labeling. And nearly two-thirds of the nation’s largest dairy processors use sworn affidavits from producers in order to label rBGH-free. (rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, is a synthetic, genetically engineered hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production).
Contrary to claims made by companies like Monsanto, states do have a constitutional right to label food. In fact, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act explicitly allows states to add language to labels so long as the federal government doesn’t require language on the same subject – a right that has consistently held up in federal court.
A chain-of-custody, legally binding affidavit labeling system empowers consumers to make more informed choices about what we eat, without increasing the costs of groceries or burdening retailers and manufacturers. One simple label to identify foods that have been genetically engineered, often using the genes of foreign bacteria and viruses, would lead more consumers to seek out sustainable, organic, non-GMO alternatives. And that – not some phony line about increased food costs – is why Monsanto is fighting labeling.
Zack Kaldveer is assistant media director at the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including “Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers” (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).