WASHINGTON, March 23, 2016 - For years, farmers, biotech companies and the food industry have been fighting off proposals for mandatory GMO labeling out of fear that it would force manufacturers to switch to non-biotech ingredients and cripple the technology.

But three of five major companies that say they plan to begin GMO labeling to comply with Vermont’s first-in-the-nation labeling requirements tell Agri-Pulse they intend to keep using GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The Vermont law takes effect July 1.

“We do not have plans to reformulate our products by removing or replacing GM ingredients,” Mars Inc. spokesman Jonathan Mudd said in an email to Agri-Pulse. “This is about labeling and consumer transparency, as well as regulatory compliance.” 

In a similar statement, The Kellogg Co. said it had no plans “to change our recipes based on labeling requirements. We make a variety of products to meet many different consumer tastes and preferences,” including organic and non-GMO products.” Kellogg’s plans to start the labeling as soon as the middle of next month.

Campbell Soup Co., which announced in January that it would start labeling biotech products, “will continue to use ingredients from GMO crops,” said spokesman Thomas Hushen. The company has printed new labels that are being sent to customers nationwide, he said. 

General Mills Inc., which announced its labeling plans on Friday, said through a spokesperson that it could not speculate on future decisions. “We let consumer demand drive our reformulation plans and that can take us in many directions such as recent changes we have made to add more cinnamon to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, to more icing in Toaster Strudel, to taking out artificial colors and flavors in 75 percent of our cereals."

ConAgra Foods also has announced plans to label its foods for GMOs, but the company didn’t say whether it would alter its ingredients. 

The positions that the companies are taking could come as a relief to farmers and seed companies worried about losing a market for biotech crops, but some other companies already are turning away from GMOs. Mars’ rival Hershey, for example, has already announced that it was switching away from beet sugar, which is genetically engineered. 

Two small Vermont companies are making changes because of their state’s law, according to the industry-backed Coalition for Safe Affordable Food: Vermont Fresh Pasta eliminated canola oil. Blue Valley Gourmet says it is discontinuing some fruit spread flavors rather than source non-GMO ingredients.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Tuesday that the threat to biotechnology from mandatory labeling is too great for Congress to wait to see whether companies keep using genetically engineered ingredients. “Vermont’s going to force a decision before that experiment can run its course,” he said.

“Anything that we do that suppresses scientific research and the ability to grow more on less land with less inputs, with less water, with less fertilizers… goes the wrong way,” Conaway said.

A bill that would preempt state GMO labeling laws stalled in the Senate last week on a 48-49 cloture vote that fell well short of the 60 votes necessary to advance the legislation toward a final vote. Democrats, led by the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, have been pressing for mandatory disclosure requirements that could include some kind of on-package wording or symbol. 

Randy Russell, the lead lobbyist for the industry on the issue, says the announcements in recent days by General Mills, Kellogg and Mars that they will start labeling their products shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that time is running out for them to make decisions about complying with the Vermont law. 

But Russell tells Agri-Pulse that he believes the decisions will put pressure on senators to reach agreement on the issue after they return from their Easter recess April 4. 

“There’s probably more pressure now than ever to get a national uniform solution and to get preemption,” Russell said. “We’re still very much focused on that endeavor. I still remain cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get a solution.” 

That optimism is based in part on the concerns that companies would reformulate away from GMOs if they are forced to label biotech ingredients, a point that has been conveyed to Senate offices. “If we’re going to maintain this technology and grow this technology, then we’ve got to have this issue resolved,” he said. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which warned senators ahead of the March 16 vote that a vote against the cloture motion was a vote against farmers, said senators are being alerted about the potential threat of labeling to biotechnology.   

“We aren’t happy about the Senate’s failure to act and are encouraging our members to weigh in with those senators who didn’t stand with farmers and rural Americans,” said Andrew Walmsley, who follows the issue for AFBF. “We will continue to press our case that the threat of reformulation is real and becomes more of a reality as companies are forced to comply” with the Vermont law.


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