By Betsy Craig, founder & CEO, MenuTrinfo
While the food service industry is moving rapidly toward transparency, removing additives and noting GMO-free products to meet the customers’ preferences, the government has taken a step in the opposite direction with the most recent GMO legislation.
On July 23, the U.S. House of Representatives took a measured and bold move to block any mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops. The house voted and passed HR 1599 what is called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. This bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) prohibits states like Vermont from mandating GMO labeling and creates a voluntary certification system at the USDA.
The massive part of this move was the inclusion of a provision that state and local laws requiring labeling will be no longer mandated, stopping states like Vermont dead in their tracks. Manufactures are staying strong on their party line that the science still does not prove that GMOs are harmful in any way shape or form but there are two very different sides to this story.
In order to better understand the issue, we must first understand what, exactly, GMO is.
According to the World Health Organization GMOs are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not naturally occur.” Which isn’t at all natural, but, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “Genetically engineered foods are generally regarded as safe.”
Genetically engineered food that’s still safe? That doesn’t seem right, but it’s a topic that is up for debate and has caused some major confusion for both the government and the food service industry.
There are two equally strong schools of thought on the topic of GMOs, mostly led by Chipotle, although many other restaurant brands are now on the bandwagon of GMO-free products. And if they are not, they are simply looking to “clean up” their ingredient offerings.
This push has been at the request of diners, who continue to push for menu transparency from the restaurant industry and the brands they buy most often.
Because of this demand from customers, we have seen a major rise in the use of marketing terms on menus, advertising and social media sites in the last five years. These terms include menu labels such as: GMO free, non-GMO, hormone free, and no additives. Having to looking specifically at GMOs, the anti-GMO establishments had another hurdle put in their path—unless this legislation goes through.
“Given the demonstrated uncertainty of federal labeling legislation at this point, and the fact that it’s completely unrealistic to expect companies to voluntarily label when their products to contain genetically modified ingredients, it is incumbent upon manufacturers and restaurants to answer the public’s call for transparency with affirmative non-GMO claims, wherever possible,” said Jules Shepard, the founder of gfjules.com. “In the absence of uniform labeling laws, consumers will come to trust those products offering voluntary non-GMO claims, and I believe we will see more and more of them preferring such products when given an alternative.”
Many restaurants of every type, from QSR, pizza, fast casual, to table service were willing to work to accommodate this new diner that wants to know details and the origin of their foods by menu tags, signage, and advertising of all types. With that being the case, why would our government look to take the industry back three giant steps by taking away GMO labeling?
From our perspective, there is little to no scientific evidence indicating the long-term implications of foods with GMO additives however there is most certainly a great deal of opinions and passion on the topic. This detail is leading the case for brands and legislators who are proponents of using GMO foods.
But, there’s plenty of push-back. Working against these pro-GMO organizations are groups, blogs, movies and social media campaigns from entities and content such as “Non GMO Project,” “Label GMOs .org” and films like “Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives, “GMO OMG” and “Fed Up.” Adding groups like “Just Label It” to the mix, this is quickly becoming an “us vs. them” issue with corporate America and the food-service industry right in the cross-hairs.
With this new legislation, the food service industry will be impacted in a few ways. Those that are trying to provide GMO free items will now have an even harder time sourcing and verifying those items as being truly GMO without a labeling mandate being in place. Conversely restaurants that are not looking to, wanting to or able to ID “GMO free” products when asked by consumers, can stand behind the pending potential legislation as the reason they are not accommodating.
I see this GMO food fight as far from unsettled or final, as the Senate still needs a Democratic co-sponsor as of this writing. The best advice we can give is to wait this out. Let’s see where the chips land if the legislation is officially passed. Then, the food service industry can take it upon themselves to make the best choices for consumers. Those are the tough decisions that the food service industry as a whole can and will make.