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Voluntary GE Labels Won't Work

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It's hard to understand why smart food companies like Coca-Cola and Con Agra, acting through their trade associations, are championing legislation that would block states from giving consumers the right to know whether their food contains genetically-engineered ingredients. Instead the food companies want us to rely on voluntary GE labeling.

Consumers want to know more, not less about their food. We want to know who made it, where it was made, and what's in it. Companies already tell us a lot, ranging from basic facts about sugar, salt and fat to whether our orange juice is from concentrate.

Of course, we would know hardly anything important about our food if we waited for voluntary initiatives like the one proposed this week by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and others.

Companies have been able to disclose the presence of GE ingredients for more than a decade. And guess what? None have. Only a few thousand packaged food products -- out of roughly two million such products -- carry labels that trumpet the absence of GE.

If they know when something is not there, they know when it is. So why won't they tell us?

Three years ago, the food industry -- under pressure to adopt a color-coded nutrition system -- pledged to put "facts up front" by displaying icons containing basic numbers about sugar, sodium, fat and calories on the front of their packages and to launch a $50 million campaign to help increase consumer awareness and understanding of what is in our food. So far, those icons are about as common as flying pigs. The consumer education campaign? It's a website.

A better course would be to craft a mandatory labeling system that gives consumers basic information without making judgments about novel new foods like genetically engineered salmon and apples. Offering to codify the current voluntary labeling system -- while pre-empting states from acting in the absence of federal leadership -- is a step in the wrong direction.

But that's not all. The food industry's proposal to allow foods labeled as "natural" to contain GE ingredients ought to strike smart industry leaders as ridiculous. After all, we genetically engineer food precisely because crops do not naturally produce certain beneficial traits. Calling a GE food natural is like saying black is white or up is down.

Of course, no one -- not even GMA -- thinks Congress will block state labeling laws. And some food leaders are finally recognizing that the fight is worse than the label and are refusing to fund opposition to new ballot initiatives. They've figured out that denying consumers the right to know -- and confusing them with misleading claims -- is turning off shoppers and just adding fuel to the fire burning brightly around the county. More than 30 states are following the lead of Maine and Connecticut by taking up GE labeling bills and ballot initiatives in 2014.

Recycling tired arguments won't stop states from requiring GE labeling. After all, consumers in 64 countries -- more than 60 percent of the world's population -- have the right to know about what's in their food. Soon enough, American consumers will too.

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