GMO Labeling Will Change the Food Industry
On July 29, 2016, Obama signed into law S. 764, requiring companies to label food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Proponents of the law believe it will honor consumers’ right-to-know and increase consumer choice. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that foods containing GMOs do not need to be labeled because they do not harm human health. Foods from livestock such as poultry, milk, eggs, or beef will not require GMO labeling. Food companies that annually earn less than $1 million in sales from human food as well as restaurants will be exempt from the law.
The new law will significantly affect many food companies. Given the high prevalence of GMOs in today’s foods, many food companies will have to decide whether to either label their GM foods or reformulate such foods to be GMO-free. If food companies choose to preserve their brand image and go GMO-free, additional time and money will be required to source non-GM ingredients, regularly test the GMO-free products, and document the added workflow.
The new law will also affect consumers in a number of ways. Although GM information will be more accessible, the fact that food companies can provide this information through QR codes and 1-800 numbers will displace the information from those who lack the required technology, specifically people with lower incomes. Additionally, some consumers may feel their fears about GMOs have been confirmed through perceiving the mandatory labels as “warnings” from the government. Inadvertently confirming consumer fears about GMOs would be misguiding as the scientific community (including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the European Commission; the World Health Organization; and the National Academy of Sciences) has overwhelmingly agreed that GM foods do not pose a greater risk to human health than non-GM foods.
Any costs associated with food companies’ efforts to comply with the law will likely be passed on to consumers. If food prices increase in response to the legislation, lower income individuals will be especially affected as food accounts for a higher proportion of their incomes. In other countries where GMO labeling has become mandatory, grocery stores have generally been depleted of GM foods. It is possible GM foods may lose prominence in the US market as well.
The USDA still has much to determine about mandatory GMO labeling. Regardless of the specific changes, the new law will certainly affect both food companies and consumers in permanent ways.