A deadline is looming for the U.S. Congress to pass a national, uniform food labeling standard before Vermont’s GMO labeling mandate is implemented on July 1. If Congress fails to act before the clock runs out, Ohio’s food and agricultural industry, which supports $105 billion in economic activity, will face tremendous uncertainty.
Agricultural biotechnology may be in jeopardy too. If Congress doesn’t act, these safe, proven technologies Ohio farmers rely on could be driven from the marketplace.
Many Ohio food and agribusiness groups, along with the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, are weighing in on how the Vermont law would impact the Buckeye State, including the Ohio Manufacturers Association (OMA), Shearer’s Foods, Inc., Lancaster Colony Corporation and Axis Seed.
“We have a large food manufacturing sub-sector and Ohio is in the top 10 for food processing and for product manufacturing used in agriculture,” said Ryan Augsburger, Vice President and Managing Director of Public Policy Services for the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association. “Large and small food processing companies with production operations in Ohio employed 60,000 last year.”
Ohio boasts a remarkable concentration of companies that process high quality food and drink supplies and products, including Kraft/Heinz, Nestle, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, Dean Foods and Cargill.
“The OMA is proud to stand with all of these companies in asking our elected representative in Congress to act promptly to enact a national uniform food labeling standard,” Augsburger said.
The affects will be felt on the consumer level as well, as families in Ohio could see their food bills spike by $1,383 a year.
“If the GMO labeling issue develops on a state-by-state basis we will wind up with nationally distributed products that are subject to conflicting state mandates,” said Matthew Shurte, General Counsel for Lancaster Colony Corporation. “Inevitably that is going to add cost and complexity to producing and distributing our products, which will lead to higher prices and inconsistent information for consumers.”
That is one of the reasons that Shurte, along with others in his industry, believe a national food labeling standard is in everyone’s best interest and that the FDA would be the most qualified agency to develop such a system.
“We are actually at the point where we have customers that do not want to ship to Vermont,” said Mark Schwerdtfeger, VP of Communications and Government Affairs for Shearer’s Foods, Inc. “Our stance is that we are okay with mandatory disclosure with multiple options, like QR codes or 1-800 numbers.”
The goal for many of these Ohio-based companies is to educate consumers about how safe there food is, and has been, which the use of genetically modified ingredients.
“GMOs are safe and they help make crops that are efficient that can resist draught and resistance and these are all good things,” Schwerdtfeger said. “If GMOs were to start going away, it would be a real travesty. One of the worst things that I hear is when a customer of ours asks us to reformulate because of the Vermont law because that would be a logistical nightmare for us.”
Not to mention the logistics to the majority of Ohio growers, who have adopted GMO technology on their farms.
“Currently over 80% of corn grown in Ohio is GMO and over 90% of our soybeans are GMO as well,” said Nathan Louiso, Local Owner with Axis Seed. “The main reason for that is that GMOs help increase yield and in order to feed our growing population, bigger yields are the most important factor.”
And if those GMOs are labeled, it may send the wrong message to consumers.
“When there is a mishmash of labeling of food across the country I think that would add to the greater confusion of the consumer,” Louiso said. “GMOs have been proven safe and a national standard will help be another example of that.”
The Senate Agriculture Committee is working on reaching an agreement on behalf of Republican chairman Pat Roberts and the committee’s ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Less than two weeks of working days remain for Congress to pass a compromise that would supersede the Vermont mandatory GMO labeling law taking effectt. The Coalition for a Safe Affordable Food Supply also noted that a New York state law continues to advance, and that the law was an indication of the danger of more states considering state laws with differences, potentially causing “chaos in the marketplace.”