On GMO Food Labeling, it Comes Down to Vilsack, Stabenow or the Courts

Congress LogoNews that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed to a $1.1 trillion spending bill that does not contain language banning states from implementing mandatory labeling schemes for foods made with the help of genetically modified crops (GMOs) hit hard. After four years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by industry beating back state GMO labeling efforts, Congress has left food companies in the lurch.

In the absence of Congressional or court action, Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law will go into effect on July 1, 2016. Food companies must comply or face stiff penalties. Some companies are already preparing for that scenario by soon labeling products for Vermont or simply changing labels on all products nationally.

Despite the apparent win for pro-labeling advocates, the battle is not over. Here are three scenarios that could still de-rail the GMO labeling effort:

  1. Its not over until its over. Although Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, ended negotiations to provide industry with relief from state GMO laws in exchange for a digital labeling solution under pressure from key Democrat Senators and food activists, talks will resume in January with the goal of bridging the remaining gap between industry and food activists.
  2. Vilsack channels his inner Kissinger. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is as disappointed as anyone that a compromise has not been reached. He is the intellectual god father of the GMO labeling smart phone solution and has offered to mediate negotiations between Republicans and industry on one side and Democrats and food activists on the other starting in January.
  3. Balance of power. The courts still need to issue a ruling in GMA v. Sorrell, industry’s legal case to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law.

Any of these scenarios are a viable path for industry to avoid labeling its products in Vermont or nationally. However, the clock is ticking. If Congress cannot achieve a solution that satisfies Democrats and Republicans and food companies and food activists, and if the courts cannot deliver a final ruling soon, the Vermont law is a seminal event that forces food companies to make hard decisions about product labeling and/or sourcing of GMO or non-GMO crops.

Vilsack’s involvement could be the wildcard in the GMO poker game because of his passion and vision to use technology to come up with a viable solution. He is smart and motivated. But there is one problem – his sway with the left on this issue is limited because they believe he is too close to industry.

That leaves Senator Stabenow as the best option. She has stated publicly that she has spent more time on the GMO issue this year than any other. However, she has been unable to tame the anti-GMO hard liners in her own chamber and it remains to be seen if she can convince them to see the merits of compromise any more effectively early next year.

Industry’s voluntary Smart Label solution, launched last month, holds promise but it may be too little, too late to satisfy Democrats and food activists.

Typically, time clarifies on issues like this. But time is running out. It would be a shame if political maneuvering in one of the smallest states in the union forces unnecessary change and also threatens the future of technology that is safe and so important to the future of mankind.

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