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The US House of Representatives last Thursday followed the exampled of the US Senate and voted to require that foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients be labeled, bringing to a close a battle over GMO labeling that has cost millions of dollars in lobbying fees and advocacy advertisements, forced a number of states to consider their own requirements, and heightened a still-to-be resolved debate about the long term safety of such ingredients.

It is expected that the bill will be signed into law shortly by President Obama.

The New York Times story about the issue noted that while the legislative part of the debate has concluded, the issue hardly has been put to rest, and that "wrangling over how the language of the law will be interpreted and put into practice will probably go on for years." The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) don't even agree about which products are covered under the law, and the Times writes that "many say the definition of what requires labeling and what does not will ultimately end up in court."

And then, there is also the argument of the labels themselves.

The Times reports that "the bill allows companies several choices for labeling. They can add text to a label stating that it contains genetically engineered ingredients; put a symbol (yet to be determined) on packaging to denote such ingredients; or use a 'digital link' like a quick response, or Q.R., code that consumers can scan with their smartphones.

"Many proponents of G.M.O. labeling contend that anything short of text will allow food companies to obscure the genetically engineered ingredients in their packaging. They object in particular to Q.R. codes, which they consider discriminatory because many consumers do not have access to the tools needed to read them."

The Times also notes that the federal law supersedes a Vermont law that essentially created a federal standard, since companies looking to sell products containing GMOs there were using the same labels elsewhere in the country. At the same time, Whole Foods said it was going to require such labeling, and a number of suppliers - most recently, Dannon - said they would include such language on their packaging.
KC's View:
I have to say that I find it funny that all sorts of industry types are coming out of the woodwork to say they think this is a terrific law, when a number of them were arguing (and funding major advertising campaigns) not that long ago that a federal, voluntary labeling was a better approach. Well, they got half of what they wanted - a federal, mandatory standard.

Not to toot my own horn, but I've been arguing for mandatory labeling for a long time. Not because I am anti-GMO, but because I am pro-transparency.

I think that they see the labeling options as a kind of win, since, in their minds, manufacturers will be able to obscure some of the information behind QR codes or other technical barriers. I think they're deluding themselves.

The fact is that a number of manufacturers are going to be up front about what is in their products, because they believe that this is what consumers ultimately want and they recognize that transparency is the best policy in the long run. Plus, Whole Foods is going to require it ... and I suspect that other retailers may do the same thing; after all, these retailers can position themselves legitimately as being agents for the consumer, and demand this level of transparency from the suppliers with which they do business.

Plus, the vast majority of people have smartphones, and thus will have the technology to cut through the barriers and find the information they want and need.

HL Mencken is often quoted as saying that "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” (This apparently isn't a precisely accurate quote, but rather a distillation of a longer passage.) I think there are plenty of examples today of how this remains true, but I also think that a highly vocal minority can create waves via social media that force businesses to do the right thing.

In this case, I think GMO labeling is the right thing. The implementation, of course, will be bumpy, and there will remain plenty of issues about which special interests on both sides can fulminate. But in the end, the move is toward greater transparency, and that is both appropriate and reflective of where the world is going.