National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

Something you will not hear any large retailer or produce marketer say: Government mandated labeling of genetically modified fruits and vegetables is not needed.

Not when the group “Just Label it” has a reported 990,000 signatures in its petition to FDA calling on the agency to label genetically-engineered foods. Organizers, who also enlisted the support of 500 organizations in favor of the petition, wonder how many people it will take for the FDA to take notice and act on this “right to know” issue.

March 27 is the 180th day of the FDA’s review period of the petition, the day that the agency is required to respond to the petition. The petition asks the FDA to issue new regulations requiring labeling of all foods produced using genetic engineering, to change the way it defines “material” change in a food.

In my opinion, the agency will probably issue a nebulous statement in response to the petition, suggesting the issue needs more evaluation and study.

A new poll will be issued by “Just Label It” campaign on March 27, and will show support for labeling of genetically engineered food across party lines.

Polls cited by the campaign point to overwhelming support for labeling genetically engineered food, with more than 90% of Americans apparently in favor the idea. In California, a separate campaign is working to collect enough signatures to put the issue of GMO food labeling on the ballot in November.

This is the type of issue that no retailer or trade group wants to stand in the way of. It is out of the question for any large retailer or food manufacturer to loudly oppose labeling of genetically engineered food. Many will simply stand on the sideline and hope the “Just Label It” passion subsides.

Don’t get me wrong. I was fairly strident in support of country of origin labeling for fruits and vegetables.  But for some reason, the Utopian idea that consumer should know everything about the food they eat is beginning to seem like piling on. How many more mandates must the food industry absorb?

Think of all the permutations of a particular product sold at retail. First of all, obviously, is the cucumber local or brought in from Mexico? Is the packaging biodegradable and recyclable? Did the grower use sustainable irrigation practices in growing his potatoes? How were the workers treated down on the farm? What pesticides were used by the grower?

The “Just Label It” group insists it is not anti-GMO food, but merely fervent in favor of “right to know.”

My hunch is that labeling of GMO food among many proponents is more about stopping the technology than giving consumers the “right to know.” For example, the group advises consumers on “How to avoid GMO foods”  by staying away from the “top eight” - corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, and some zucchini and yellow squash.

To get the insight of the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, I recently put out a poll of members.

The question: Should the FDA require retail labeling of genetically modified fruits and vegetables? It should be pointed out that there is just a handful of GMO fruits and vegetables on the market now representing a very tiny fraction of a percent of total produce marketed.

Even for this industry group, the vote is surprisingly in favor of labeling for GMO fruits and vegetables, with a March 22 tally of 13 in favor of mandatory labeling and 10 opposed.

The reasons that members gave in favor of labeling follow the simple logic: Consumers should know how there food is grown and produced.

As one supporter of the idea said, “Surveys show consumers want GMO labeling, what is the food industry so afraid of if there are no risks? How does labeling “raise the price of food” exactly?”

Another member said that suppliers should at least inform buyers whether commodities are GMO or not, and let them decide if any type of labeling is necessary or appropriate.

I assume there are folks in the food industry who oppose labeling of genetically modified food, but they have elected to take a pass on vocal opposition to the “Just Label It” campaign.

Right now genetically modified food is associated with chemical companies and agri-business giants. If genetically engineered fruits and vegetables delivered better taste, elevated nutrition or some other Rx for healthy living, perhaps retailers would be the first to say government mandated labeling of genetically engineered food is not needed. After all, they would be drawing up the point of sale signs themselves.