Is the Food Industry Winning the Battle but Losing the War on GMOs?

In an amazing turn of events, media outlets and social media users are castigating fast food favorite Chipotle for last week’s announcement that it is banning GMO ingredients from its restaurants.

The Washington Post, New York Times, Forbes and a host of editorial boards reacted swiftly, condemning Chipotle for ignoring the scientific consensus on GMOs and pandering to the organic, fresh and local food movement while contributing mightily to the nation’s obesity crisis with its high calorie menu.

The media (traditional and social) backlash against Chipotle is welcome news to food industry leaders, many of which are engaged in an important marketplace and public policy battle to save GMO technology and prevent the labeling of GMO ingredients on food packages.

The Chipotle announcement and resulting backlash bracketed a federal judge’s April 27th decision denying food manufacturers’ plea for a temporary injunction against the state of Vermont to prevent the state from implementing its GMO labeling law on July 1, 2016.

Of course industry will appeal the decision, but a final ruling on the injunction could take up to two years – that’s a year too late.  More importantly, a final decision on industry’s lawsuit to strike down the law could end up in the Supreme Court and take three to four years to resolve.

While the litigation runs its course, the pro and anti-GMO labeling camps will continue to slug it out with competing bills Congress and the states.

Where does that leave industry?  The Chipotle backlash is one of many signs that science and common sense, supported by the significant resources of a dedicated cadre of food companies, is winning the battle over the safety of GMOs.  Nearly every credible food safety organization and a host of media outlets have weighed-in, saying GMOs are safe.  So has Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Meanwhile, flying in the face of wisdom, consumers remain wary of GMO technology, and activist group calls to label the presence of GMOs on food labels are resonating with today’s transparency-minded consumers.

Industry’s federal legislation, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, if passed, would put an end to the labeling nonsense.  However, partisan politics and a hectic Congressional calendar conspire to decrease the bill’s chances of success in this Congress despite the Vermont legal set back.

In reality, the Vermont court case is the ultimate forcing event.  Unless industry can get a higher court to implement an injunction to stop the state’s labeling law from taking effect on July 1, 2016, food companies will likely have to label their products or choose to source non-GMO ingredients for their brands – and not just in Vermont, but nationally, because they are unlikely to afford or tolerate two supply chains – one for Vermont and one for the rest of the country.

In short, time is not on industry’s side. It needs a quick and favorable decision from the courts on GMOs.  It needs quick passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. It needs to quickly develop and deploy smart phone technology to disclose the information consumers want digitally rather than on food labels.

If any of these are resolved quickly (within the next 12 months), industry has a good chance of saving GMO technology and avoiding product labeling. If not, food companies will face important and expensive decisions about what to do with GMOs very soon.

In the bigger scheme of things, it would be a shame if industry wins the battle over safety but ends up losing the war to keep GMOs as an important tool in its quest to provide an abundance of safe, healthy and affordable food for the U.S. and a global population that will reach nine billion by 2050.

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