Are Walmart and Big Food Lobbying for a GMO Labeling Law?
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
High-level executives from some of the U.S.’s largest food corporations are meeting with the FDA behind closed doors this week to lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law. Could it be that bad press and consumer backlash have dulled the enthusiasm of these former biotech cheerleaders? Or is Big Food just cozying up to the FDA so they can derail the growing organic and anti-GMO movement, and finagle a federal labeling law so toothless it won’t be worth the ink it takes to sign it?
According to informed sources in Washington, DC, representatives of Wal-Mart, General Mills, Pepsi-Frito Lay, Mars, Coca-Cola and others are meeting with the FDA this week. Wal-Mart came under fire recently for selling unlabeled and likely hazardous GMO sweet corn in its stores. General Mills, Pepsi, Mars and Coca-Cola have been the targets of numerous consumer boycotts, including a social media-powered boycott of "Traitor Brands:” “natural” and organic brands whose parent companies contributed millions of dollars to defeat Prop 37, the Nov. 6 California Ballot Initiative to label GMO foods and ban the routine industry practice of marketing GMO foods as "natural" or "all natural."
The “Traitor Brands” boycott, initiated by the Organic Consumers Association, has been gaining steam as other groups pick up the flag. The boycott hasn’t gone unnoticed by company executives, either. Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman sent the OCA a letter defending his brand’s position, a position not unlike the one taken recently by Ben & Jerry’s. Both companies absolve their brands of any responsibility for their parent companies’ donations to the NO on 37 campaign, claiming that they have no say in corporate-level decisions.
But a look at the Facebook pages of some of the "Traitor Brands" reveals consumers’ anger and sense of betrayal. Brands like Honest Tea, Kashi, Muir Glen, Naked Juice, Cascadian Farms, Horizon, Silk, and Ben & Jerry’s, once sought out by quality-conscious, loyal consumers willing to pay a little extra for organic, sustainably produced products, have been tarnished by their association with the hardline anti-right-to-know policies of Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Pepsi, Dean Foods, and Unilever..
Add to that the growing controversy surrounding the pending commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) salmon; the prospect of upcoming high-profile GMO labeling legislative battles in Vermont and Connecticut; and I-522, a major ballot initiative working its way toward a November 2012 vote in Washington State, and it makes sense that the Big Food elite may be preparing for a tactical retreat from the largest food fight in U.S. history.
Is it possible that the threat posed by the growing grassroots GMO labeling movement has prompted a number of Fortune 500 corporations to abandon Monsanto and the biotech industry, and rethink the PR and bottom-line costs of clinging to their anti-right-to-know positions? After all, it’s not as if these companies are incapable of making GMO-free products. Though many Americans don’t know it, Wal-Mart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks -- even McDonald’s -- are GMO-free in Europe, thanks to strict GMO labeling laws.
Maybe Big Food, faced with the inevitability of states passing mandatory GMO labeling laws, is ready to throw in the towel? As Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, explained in November, big food corporations are happy they headed off mandatory GMO labeling by defeating Prop 37 in California but, “we hope we don’t have too many of them, because you can’t keep doing that over and over again...”
Or is this just a case of Big Food and indentured FDA bureaucrats conspiring to confuse consumers and slow the momentum of the nation’s fast-growing right-to-know and anti-GMO movement? Is this a “bait and switch” deal to get us to shut up, a tactic to derail the grassroots movement that appears on track to pass strict GMO labeling laws in Washington, Vermont and Connecticut this year?
We should be wary of any compromise deal at the federal level, one that would preempt the passage of meaningful state GMO labeling laws that have real teeth. We don’t want to end up with a law like the one Japan passed in 2001. That law exempted all GMO foods except corn and soy from being labeled, allowed up to 5% GMO content in individual ingredients, and exempted cooking oils and other foods where transgenic DNA is difficult to detect. Similarly, a GMO law passed by Brazil under pressure from consumers and farmers contained no real requirements for enforcement, until a recent court decision against Nestle.
And let’s not forget what happened in late-2010 in another closed-door meeting, when members of the “Organic Elite,” including Whole Foods, tried to engineer a compromise with Monsanto and the USDA over “co-existence” between GMO alfalfa and organic crops.
Grassroots activism and marketplace pressure can bring about major changes in corporate behavior and even in public policy. When major food corporations, under pressure from consumers, break ranks with Monsanto and the biotech industry, GMO public policy and marketplace dynamics change dramatically.
The consumer-led rejection since 1994 of Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) by family-scale dairy farmers and major dairy brands has kept rBGH marginalized. Currently less than 10% of U.S. dairy cows are injected with Monsanto’s (now Elanco’s) rBGH, a hormone linked to increased risk of cancer in humans, as well as major animal health damage. Thanks to consumer pressure, many leading dairy brands in the U.S. are labeled as “rBGH (or rBST) free;” while rBGH is banned outright in Canada, Europe, Japan, and most industrialized nations.
In 2000, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pringles and McCain opposed Monsanto’s genetically engineered “New Leaf” potatoes. Their opposition kept these Bt-spliced “Frankenspuds” off the market.
Similarly, opposition to Monsanto’s GE wheat in 2003, not only by U.S. wheat farmers, but also by General Mills and Frito-Lay, killed the commercialization of this multi-billion dollar crop. And it was consumer pressure that forced Starbucks and other coffee brands to keep GE coffee off the market.
If it’s true that Wal-Mart and a number of big food corporations are ready to compromise and allow labels on genetically engineered foods, don’t hold your breath for the Obama Administration’s FDA to quickly change course. For 20 years FDA bureaucrats, led by Michael “Monsanto” Taylor, the Obama-appointed FDA Food Safety Czar, have blocked all attempts to require mandatory federal GMO labeling. Our best chance to regain our right to know what’s in our food and begin to drive GMOs off the market is to stay on the offensive. We need to pass mandatory GMO labeling laws in the current frontline states of Washington, Vermont and Connecticut, and we need to step up the pressure on Food Inc. with our boycott of their “Traitor Brands."
And even after we win mandatory GMO labeling on produce and processed foods, which will realistically take at least several years, we will still need to fight for labels on GMO-fed, factory-farmed meat, dairy, and eggs, a more comprehensive labeling law that even the EU does not yet have in place. At least 80% of GMO crops grown in the U.S. are destined for animal feed in factory farms. If we’re going to stop these environmentally disastrous farming practices, we’ll have to demand labeling of factory-farmed food. And that will require an unprecedented campaign of public education, direct action, and grassroots mobilization, similar to the campaign we are already waging for GMO labeling.
Hats off to the thousands of activists and millions of consumers and voters who have made GMOs and GMO labeling burning issues in the U.S. Wal-Mart and the Big Food lobby would not be sitting down behind closed doors this week asking the FDA to take action if it were not for the growing online/marketplace/political activism of our nationwide organic anti-GMO movement. But, as more and more of us understand, this monumental food fight is not just about labeling GMOs. We are fighting, as well, for a healthy and sustainable food and farming system, a green and equitable economy, a stable climate, and a real democracy where citizens, not corporations and their indentured politicians, rule.