Monday, November 7, 2011
Legislation may pass GMO labeling duties to produce distributors
By Kathryn M. Roy
Hartford Business Journal
November 07, 2011
Legislation being introduced by state Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford) to require clearer labeling of food products that contain genetically modified organisms could prove costly to produce distributors.
The legislation failed in the Connecticut General Assembly this past session, but when it is resubmitted next session, Rep. Roy said he expects the bill to require distributors to be responsible for the labeling before products are offered for sale. Daniel Batchelder, outside sales manager at FreshPoint in Hartford, says the legislature faces problems in defining what produce needs to be labeled. And, he says, any extra costs would have to be passed on to consumers.
GMOs are organisms that have been genetically modified at the cellular level to increase yields and resist disease. They are most often found in produce, but processed foods can also contain GMOs. One of the concerns about GMOs is that the long-term effects on consumers have not been determined. Five countries in the European Union, most recently Germany, have banned them, due to the “threat to the environment.”
Opponents say consumers ought to have the right to know if the genes in their food have been modified.
Robert Burns of Aiki Farms in Ledyard, who supports GMO labeling, held a conference to educate legislators on the topic earlier this year. He said the public needs to be better informed.
“The public is angry,” Burns said. “This is a national movement to label. People are outraged that they’re not given the right to choose. Foods produced through GMOs entail different risks than their counterparts.”
Roy said he learned about the issue through contact with folks in the environmental arena.
“We ask them to list the ingredients and the percentage of daily requirements, how much fat, sugar and salt (are in the food),” he said. “We want them to tell us what else is being put in there. What we want to do is simply have any product that contains GMOs to say so.” FreshPoint, a produce distributor in Hartford, could be among those required to label genetically modified organisms under a bill being proposed by state Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford).
Roy said the industry doesn’t want to label any GMOs, arguing GMOs have not been proven harmful.
“Labeling is going to cost them a few extra dollars,” he said. “If GMOs were beneficial, they should be using it as a selling point as opposed to hiding it. When people start to hide stuff, the reason is never good.”
Daniel E. Batchelder, outside sales manager at FreshPoint, a produce distributor based in Hartford, said the legislation would have to be very specific about what is considered genetically modified.
Batchelder added that any costs associated with such legislation would eventually reach the consumer.
“From a distribution point of view, anything that adds cost to the movement of product adds costs to customers, so the bottom line is, if they’re requiring us as a distributor to label everything, that’s a cost that will ultimately be passed on to the consumer,” he said.
Batchelder said FreshPoint deals with many farms and growers across the country, which would also be affected by required labeling.
“We’ll have to say, u2018You’ll have to label the product or we can’t buy your stuff,’” he said. “I think that will have a negative impact on many farms across the country.”
Batchelder said he thinks all large-scale distributors would do the same thing, asking farmers to take care of the labeling on their end.
“We take in a product and we ship it out,” he said. “We try not to put our hands in the box as well.”
While Roy concedes it may be difficult to ever see a full list of ingredients in any food product, he is hoping to educate the public.
“I hope it gets people more aware of what’s out there,” he said. “If we can get people interested in what’s in their food, changes will come about, driven by the market as opposed to law and regulation. We have enough laws and regulation.”
Roy said he expects shoppers to decide not to purchase certain products if they know they contain potentially harmful ingredients.
“In the long term, we won’t have to pass laws or demand they do certain things,” he said. “The marketplace will determine what happens with suppliers and growers. I think that would be a better track to take.”
Emily Brooks of the Edibles Advocate Alliance said defining a GMO gets quite complicated. There are many ways products can be genetically modified including harmless natural processes, making any legislation requiring labeling complex.
General consumer misunderstanding about genetic modification could make the language of proposed legislation very slippery and leave open gaping loopholes that may not be in a consumer’s best interest.
She said the question of who should pay for such labeling is a good one to ask.
“Right now, consumers have to pay with misinformation,” she said. “We’re paying with our dollars. These products may be more expensive to conceive but, with ill-defined definitions and labeling loopholes the resulting products become cheaper to mass produce. Most still advocate for GMO’s under the flag of the Green Revolution, but the reality is that the Green Revolution hasn’t increased overall food production yields world-wide or decreased food insecurity in any country.”
A recent report by Union of Concerned Scientists titled “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops,” showed that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields while only driving up costs for farmers.
“Requiring the labeling of GMO’s with the proper legislation coupled with adequate consumer understanding is probably one of the most important things we can do to protect small and medium-sized farmers,” Brooks said.
Roy said since the legislation will need to be re-introduced next year, it’s not definite yet, but he expects to put the labeling responsibility on the distributors.
“The distributor is the spot where we think it would probably be least onerous, but they would also be able to watch and monitor what’s happening,” he said.
Roy said he envisions the system working like the bottle law, which has distributors handling five-cent deposits.
“I would hope that if there is a better system out there that we will come across it, or we will devise one,” he said.
Roy concedes it’s not yet known what the legislation will look like when it’s finished being crafted.
“We are looking at what other states are doing as well as developing our own proposal and campaign for passage,” he said. “At this point, we do not have a definitive piece of legislation nor a complete roadmap from here to there.”
According to the website SayNotoGMOs.org, no state has passed a law to date requiring GMO labeling.
Joe Ruffini, part owner at Northeast Produce Inc., a Plainville tomato distributor, said although he hasn’t seen the legislation, there are too many unanswered questions about what would be required to have a label at this point.
He said anything that puts additional costs on distributors is a burden in an already tough economic climate.
“It’s just an added expense,” Ruffini said. “We’re already being bombarded with food safety costs, higher insurance rates and just the increased costs of doing business.”
Cori Griswold of North Granby, a consumer concerned about GMOs, said what she has read about the potential dangers has her paying more attention to what she puts in her shopping cart.
“The more I learn about GMO, the more I buy organic,” she said. “I don’t think the public realizes how pervasive GMO has become in our food supply, and I definitely don’t believe the public knows about the studies out there.”
A 2010 study released by the International Journal of Biological Sciences indicated that agricultural company Monsanto’s genetically modified corn is linked to organ damage in rats.
“I’ve seen surveys that say most people want to know if their food is GMO,” Griswold said. “I’d like to think it would lead to significantly different buying choices.”