There's a bill making its way through Congress with one of those Orwellian names, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. The House Agriculture Committee has just approved it, and it's headed for a vote by the House shortly. It started out as an attempt to prevent the FDA and individual states from requiring mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered organisms (GMOs), instead making it voluntary. Now, the latest version that the House is set to vote on would not only block GE food labeling laws across the country, it would also prevent states and local governments from regulating GMO plants in any way.
Many of the members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association are supporting the bill, and as the CEO of a $1 billion food service company, you might think I would, too. But I don't.
Like Chipotle, Whole Foods, ClifBar, Applegate, and other socially and environmentally minded companies opposing it, I think consumers have a right to know what's in their food. The Just Label It coalition is calling this proposed bill the DARK Act -- because it would Deny Americans the Right to Know information that 92 percent of consumers polled say they want.
I didn't really need a poll to tell me that, though. Our company serves almost 200 million meals every year to corporate employees, university students, and museum visitors. And one of the most frequent questions we hear from our guests these days is, "Are you GMO-free?"
Yes, they're asking because GMOs are all over the news. But it's also simple human nature: People like to know what they're eating. And you know what? The restaurant industry is a service industry. We prefer to give people what they want.
Yet when my company gets the question, the answer is "Probably not -- because we cook whole foods from scratch, and GMOs are mostly in processed foods, but we don't really know." And that's not good enough for our guests or for me.
My company has been working hard to meet the FDA's new menu labeling guidelines for restaurants. (The deadline has just been extended for a year.) They think consumers should be given the information they're asking for to make healthier choices. It's a huge investment of time and effort for us, but I agree, the more transparency about what people are eating, the better.
Not giving consumers the information they're demanding about your product -- even if you don't agree with why they want it -- is simply bad business. Refusing to tell them just makes them believe even more strongly that something sneaky's afoot.
So, is there? In this case, I am comfortable saying I don't know, because it's not really the point here. If the companies that use GMOs in their products are so sure they're fine, then why spend millions to fight labeling them? After all, they're willing to label those same products in 62 countries. Why do they trust European and Japanese consumers to decide what to do with that information more than they do American ones?
Non-GMO labels are not the solution. U.S. food companies have been allowed to make non-GMO claims since 2001, but American consumers seem more confused than ever. The DARK Act also proposes that voluntary non-GMO claims should be certified through a new program to be established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would delay giving consumers what they want. After all, it took 10 years for the USDA to set up the National Organic Program!
Look, voluntary standards haven't worked for regulating antibiotics in agriculture, and they won't work for this. We need mandatory GMO labeling.
Suppose the DARK Act passes. The only way consumers could avoid the new GMO apple, GMO potato or GMO salmon (if they want to) would be if every other manufacturer and produce company chose to label the rest of the items in the produce section or the fish counter as non-GMO. Imagine if that's how food companies were allowed to handle gluten labeling! There's a reason that "made without gluten" has taken off.
I am not a scientist. I am not talking about banning GMOs. I'm not getting into whether GMO crops yield more or not. I do think it's insane that U.S. farmers grow so much GMO corn and soy to feed animals and fuel cars, when we could just be using that land to grow food for people or eating more plants and less meat. I agree with Mark Bittman that the key to "feeding 9 billion" isn't to produce more food, it's to fight global poverty and stop wasting the food we have.
Labeling GMOs is not about whether this technology is good or bad. It's just about giving consumers something that 9 out of 10 of them have clearly stated they want. That's good business.