GM labelling milestone in US

September 2011

Photo by brdavid on Flickr
“If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” (Norman Braksick, President of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, quoted in the Kansas City Star, 7.03.94) 
“The Achilles heel of Monsanto and the biotech industry is consumers' right to know.” (Ronnie Cummins, of the Organic Consumers Association, 27.07.11)
Something very major slipped into the global GM-regulatory arena in July 2011.

After two decades of discussion and American intransigence, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has produced guidance on the labelling of GM food. The final text states that “Different approaches regarding labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology are used”. The words look innocuous, but they mean that any country wishing to adopt GM food labelling may do so.

Codex is made up of the world's food-safety regulatory agencies. It is the global food standards-setting body of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. It may take rather a long time to reach a consensus, but once set, its guidance or standards are internationally recognised the world over, and form a reference point for food standards used by the World Trade Organisation in settling trade disputes. Codex is especially looked to by developing countries seeking regulatory guidance.

The Codex GM-labelling guidance is significant because it has many implications. Most importantly, no country adopting GM labelling can now face a legal challenge through the World Trade Organisation: regulators have no legal excuse not to implement labelling. As far as human rights go, consumers have now secured the right to be informed about a GM presence in their food. It has implications for safety too because the use of transparent GM information as a tool to health-monitoring has been recognised, and the reporting of adverse reactions to GM foods has been enabled.

America has, of course, been the main opposition to GM labelling guidance all along. Agreement was only finally reached due to a sudden reversal of the US position. Predictably, the biotech industry dismissed the document as achieving nothing, and apparently came close to denying that there was any agreement at all. One pro-GM scientist dismissed the new rule as “a distraction”, regulators obediently echoed industry spin and called it “misleading”, while the National Corn Growers Association, whose members stand to lose most, denounced it as “unfair”. In the opinion of the US Consumers' Union, the Codex guidance is unlikely to change current practice in the US or in Canada where industry has successfully blocked GM labelling since day one.

An unfair, misleading distraction it may be, but labelling of GM food is now an official Codex text no matter how dismissive industry and regulators try to sound about it.

If labelling is so bad for business, why did US delegates to Codex changed their tune so suddenly?

One clue might lie in the 'Non-GMO Project' sparked by the absence of GM labelling in the US.

As Americans are switching to natural and organic foods in droves, food companies are using the Non-GMO Project's 'Product Verification Program' to assure customers of the quality of their produce.

For example, 'Silk', which is owned by the largest dairy company in America (Dean Foods), was recently caught trying to pull the wool over its customers' eyes. Conventional soya was sneaked into the shops in packaging very similar to Silk's organic line. Its customers were not pleased with the unfair attempt to mislead and distract them. In a bid to rebuild market confidence, the company has enrolled in the Product Verification Program, and is now sourcing all its soya from North America with traceability down to county level.

The Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project said:
“With more than 20 million consumers nationwide and an exceptionally high volume of soybeans, all from North America, Silk is a tremendous ally”.
Perhaps US regulators have just woken up to how misleading, distracting, unfair, and bad for business it is if you put a product into a package which doesn't tell you what is actually inside.

It may also be significant that America's neighbour, and previous ally in the pursuit of banning GM labelling, recently abandoned the cause. Public pressure in Canada helped turn around its government's position and leave the US to argue its case alone.


The cave-in at Codex may be a sign that US regulators have sensed a wind of change. Ignoring public opinion, no matter how much industry pays them to do so (see US CONSUMERS DEMAND GM LABELLING – July 2011), may be getting increasingly difficult.

Add to this that, as Silk has proven, reliably sourcing non-GM in America is perfectly possible if you focus your attention on it.

The US public are certainly showing signs of getting more militant about the quality of the home-grown food that's being foisted upon them. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said “it's time to move beyond defensive measures and go on the offensive”.

This warlike statement is not just words. On October 1st begins a 'Right2Know March' from New York City to the White House in Washington, 300 miles away. There will be speakers exhibits, press opportunities, cookouts and teach-ins along the way. The aim is to create enough buzz to demand labelling of GM foods.

If you have American friends or relatives in the area, they might like to join the fun. Tell them to check out the Millions Against Monsanto Campaign  and the Organic Consumers Association.

  • Ronnie Cummins, Monsanto Nation: Taking Down Goliath, Organic Consumers Association 27.07.11
  • U.S. Ends Opposition to GM Labeling Guidelines, Consumers International Press Release, 5.07.11
  • Consumer rights victory as US ends opposition to GM labelling guidelines, 5.07.11
  • Lucy Sharratt, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, The Great Food Labelling Debate, The Mark, 26.07.11
  • Silk Soymilk Trying to build Image with Organic Purchasers, Sustainable Business News, 27.06.11
  • Eryn Brown, Codex Alimentarius pronounces on GM labels, Los Angeles Times, 10.07.11

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