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Label initiatives promise confusion


Editorial


Here's a reality check -- and a suggestion -- for the folks running the state-by-state campaigns to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients.


Currently before the Washington Legislature is an initiative that calls for mandatory labels on some food sold in that state. The initiative, which will likely be on the November ballot, is similar to one that California voters rejected last fall, but slightly "improved."


The main "improvement" is that an ominous section of the California initiative has been dropped. It basically said that if the initiative passed, the state Legislature could never get rid of it or modify it unless it was made more stringent.


The Washington initiative also modified who can sue a farmer or processor. The California initiative basically said anyone could sue if he thought a farmer was selling genetically modified crops that weren't labeled. In Washington, the initiative makes the state Department of Health the food police and equips the department with the power to fine any miscreants up to $1,000 a day.


Even with those improvements, the Washington initiative is a mess. It exempts food sold in restaurants, alcoholic beverages, most meat and food certified as organic. It also doesn't say how the state, which is strapped for cash, will be able to afford all of the testing required on the many thousands of food products sold in Washington. And how will the state monitor every batch of food that's produced? And who will pay for it? Here's a hint: taxpayers.


Another flaw is that a food processor wrongly accused of mislabeling food has no recourse for recovering its court costs under the initiative. Only a successful plaintiff -- the state -- can be awarded court costs.


We have editorialized on this subject for more than a decade, ever since a biotech labeling initiative was first proposed in Oregon in 2002. Some folks called GMO-Free Oregon are planning another try, as is a group in Idaho, so we will no doubt get more opportunities to comment on these and other initiatives.


As an aside, it's interesting that many of the groups use the phrase "GMO-free" in their names, not "we want to help consumers" or "we believe in the right to know." It appears there's more to the issue than slapping a label on a bottle of corn syrup. We suspect this is more about a national campaign targeting Monsanto, which develops biotech crops, than about food safety.


In fact, there is no evidence that genetically modified foods are in any way unhealthful. In fact, most have been in the marketplace for more than a decade. If any health consequences existed, we're confident scientists would have discovered them long before now.


Beyond that, the main problem with these state initiative efforts is the hodgepodge of standards and laws they would create for farmers and companies that market food across state lines. Because of that, the only answer to the issue would be a federal standard, which we already have in the form of the National Organic Program. It provides a label that specifies that food certified as organic does not contain genetically modified ingredients. The California and Washington initiatives even recognize that to be true.


Which, as we understand it, is the main point of those and the other initiatives.


Beyond that analysis, we also have a suggestion. Instead of involving 50 state governments in efforts to label food that have genetically modified ingredients, why not develop a voluntary certification program that would label foods that don't have genetically modified ingredients? If organic certification is in some way inadequate, food could be tested and certified as GMO-free by an independent group.


It wouldn't take an initiative or an act of Congress to do it, only a group that believes such labels would be beneficial and important to consumers.


It would also create market segmentation for farmers and processors and another option for consumers.


And best of all, the state and federal governments -- and taxpayers -- wouldn't be saddled with yet another expensive, and unneeded, program.



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