General MIlls to start labeling biotech products

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 18, 2016 - With lawmakers struggling to agree on national GMO disclsoure standards, General Mills Inc. announced that it will start labeling its products for biotech ingredients as required by a Vermont law set to take effect this summer.

The General Mills announcement, which follows a decision by Campbell Soup Co. in January, comes as legislation to preempt state GMO labeling laws has stalled in the Senate

Negotiations are ongoing on a compromise version of the legislation, but the Senate broke Thursday for its two-week Easter recess without a resolution to the issue. The move by General Mills could serve to increase pressure on senators to reach a compromise. 

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“We can't label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products,” Jeff Harmening, executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills, said in a blog post announcing the decision.

Harmening said there still must be a “national solution” to the labeling issue. He said the company also is providing information about its biotech ingredients on its website

General Mills is sticking with the industry-wide effort to get Congress to set national disclosure standards, said General Mills spokeswoman Mary Lynn Carver. Shoppers should begin seeing the new labels over the next several weeks. But depending on the type of packaging, it could take several months for the new wording to appear.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which General Mills is a member, said that the company's decision shows how “Vermont's looming labeling mandate is a serious problem” for food companies and “should give urgency to the need” for congressional action.  

“Food companies are being forced to make decisions on how to comply and having to spend millions of dollars,” according to a GMA statement. “One small state's law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country.” 

Proponents of mandatory, on-package GMO labeling praised the General Mills announcement. “Nine out of 10 Americans want the right to know whether their food contains GMOs -- just like consumers in 64 other nations,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group and director of the Just Label It coalition. 

“Like General Mills, we hope Congress will craft a national, mandatory GMO labeling solution and we welcome the opportunity to work with industry to find a solution that works for consumers and works for the food industry,” he said.

The Vermont law, which takes effect July 1, requires foods that have biotech ingredients to be labeled as produced or partially produced with genetic engineering. 

The food industry has been lobbying the Senate to allow companies to disclose GMO (genetically modified) ingredients and a variety of product attributes on the web, call centers and a smartphone-based system, SmartLabel. 

Many Senate Democrats have insisted that the disclosure be mandatory and that labels include a symbol or wording that makes clear foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. Industry officials are concerned such wording or symbols would demonize biotechnology. 

Democrats blocked advancement of a preemption bill on Wednesday on a vote of 48-49. Sixty votes were needed to move the legislation, and leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee still appear to be far apart on resolving the issue. 

General Mills is based in Minneapolis, in Minnesota, the home state of two key senators seen as potential Democratic supporters of a preemption bill, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. Both voted against the cloture motion. 

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Meghan Cline, a spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, said Thursday that the committee's top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, hasn't been talking to Republicans and hasn't offered any alternative bill language of her own.

“Farmers and ranchers who want to see this resolved had better demand some action from her,” Cline said.

Stabenow's staff responded that she had “provided numerous proposals” to Roberts ahead of Wednesday's cloture vote. Stabenow is “prepared to work with Chairman Roberts and any other Republican leader on a viable path forward,” an aide said. 

Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat who has been working to broker an agreement, has proposed requiring food labels to include a special phone number that consumers could call to find out information about a product's GMO contents. 

But Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told Agri-Pulse that there is a significant dispute over what wording would have to accompany the phone number. At issue is whether the label would have to specifically say that the number could be called to determine a product's biotech or GMO contents, or whether the label would just say that the number could be called to get information about the product. 

(Updated 4:30 p.m.) 


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