GMO Labeling: A Game-Changing Event That Avoided the Headlines?

It all started in California in 2012. Proponents of placing labels on foods made with GMO ingredients qualified their proposal for the state’s November election ballot. After a decade-long slumber, the GMO issue was back.

Simple enough, many labeling opponents thought. Win in one of the most liberal and most expensive jurisdictions in the country, dampen the spirit of GMO labeling advocates and send the issue into hibernation for another decade.

Then came legislative proposals in dozens of states, counties and municipalities. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that will go into effect if certain conditions are met. Even Hawaii, one of the most laid back places on the planet got in on the action. Then came Washington State and its messy 2013 ballot initiative.

NGOs and activist groups have fueled the dizzying pace of activity through a relentless digital and social media campaign that has captured the attention of consumers and the media and of course, industry leaders. Now, whether they are prompted by outside groups makes no difference – consumers are asking retailers and manufacturers to label GMO food products because they want to know what is in their food.

This flood of activity has taken its toll on company pocketbooks and brand image. So, to put an end to the chaotic pace of activity and the high cost of fighting the GMO battle on numerous fronts, industry is supporting a federal bill that would prevent state and local jurisdictions from passing their own GMO labeling laws and instead puts the decision in the hands of the FDA.

At first glance, the GMO food labeling debate shapes up like many others. Two sides slug it out in the public policy arena and one side wins. Millions of dollars are spent, accusations are leveled and legislators are asked to decide which side is right.

However, underneath the radar, a wildcard has been introduced that very well may disrupt the state of play. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently testified before the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee (http://www.dairyherd.com/dairy-news/Vilsack-Technology-offers-alternative-to-mandatory-GMO-labeling-251793261.html) that USDA and FDA are exploring a technological solution that would allow consumers to access a database that would tell them whether or not a specific product contains GMO ingredients.

Proponents of GMO labeling, as you might expect, were cool to the idea. That’s not surprising, because in the end, they see labeling as a way to eliminate GMO technology from the US marketplace, not as a transparency issue.

Industry needs to take this USDA-FDA “conversation” seriously. When your top two regulatory agencies are talking to each other, it is only a matter of time until they ask you to do something voluntarily or seek to compel you to do what they want.

A digital solution – a phone app or Web site – is difficult and costly. The cost goes well beyond the development of the technology. Companies and their suppliers would have to tack, trace and segregate their supply chains to determine with certainty what products do and don’t contain GMOs – something they don’t do now except for their organic or non-GMO products.

The industry will have to weigh the benefits, costs and risks of a protracted and contentious state and federal public policy debate against the benefits, costs and risks of a non-label solution.

Transparency has many faces, and the label is just one of them. Industry will get to the bottom of this. If consumers embrace the concept of a “touch of a button” solution, industry will find a way to get there.

Until then, both sides should keep an eye on the FDA and USDA “conversations” about a technological solution to the GMO labeling debate. It may turn out to be a game-changer.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, is former Executive Vice President, Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association