Study of labeling costs ripped by lawmaker as “scare tactics”

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 17, 2014….A recently released study pointing to increased food prices if manufacturers are forced to label genetically modified ingredients in food products has invigorated one lawmaker behind the push for so-called GMO labels to get legislation passed.

The study, conducted by a professor from Cornell University and funded by the Council for Biotechnology Information, found that food costs for a family of four in the Northeast region could increase anywhere between $224 to $800 annually, with the average falling at $500.

The study, written by professor William Lesser, attributes higher food costs to increased labeling costs, warehousing additional items, and any costs supermarkets incur for stocking and tracking newly-labeled products. Lesser said the lower cost estimate is calculated if manufacturers label existing products containing GMOs, and the highest number incorporates possible changes in products to use only all organic ingredients.

There are a number of different ways the food industry could respond to labeling mandates, according to Lesser. “The way the industry responds is going to have a direct affect on the costs,” Lesser told the News Service in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat who sponsored legislation requiring GMO food labels in Massachusetts, called the study biased, citing its funding source. The study specifically stated it did not take a position on whether or not foods should be labeled.

“My immediate reaction is this sounds like scare tactics,” Story told the News Service Tuesday.

Story said the research is based on a false assumption that manufacturers will try to reformulate their products using non-genetically modified ingredients to avoid the labels that some manufacturers fear will cause consumers not to buy a product.

“That’s absurd. They are not going to do that. What are they going to do, not use corn syrup? Corn syrup is in everything,” she said. “It is clearly a biased study.”

Lesser dismissed the bias accusation. “What I did was be absolutely transparent about what I did. We were right upfront about who it was funded by…the data sources were all laid out,” he said.

A majority of House and Senate members have pledged support for legislation requiring labels for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. The bill has not surfaced for a vote in either the House or Senate with only 44 days remaining for controversial legislation to be considered in formal sessions.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are being pushed from both sides as proponents of labeling say consumers have a right to know what they are eating, while the food industry argues it is an unnecessary move and should only be dealt with at the federal level so the industry can work within a consistent policy.

While 60 countries require labels, food manufacturers in the United States are not required to label genetically modified foods. Voluntary labeling is an option. Retailers argue that food manufacturers will find it difficult to tailor labels for each state.

“Labeling though has real costs attributable to more expensive ingredients and the process of maintaining product identity and the labeling process itself, among others,” the study states.

Vermont recently passed legislation requiring GMO labels, prompting the Grocery Manufacturers Association to file suit in U.S. District Court in Vermont.

Maine and Connecticut also enacted labeling laws for engineered food, but those laws won’t go into effect until other states in the region do the same. New York is also contemplating legislation. The study conducted by the Cornell professor estimated the costs to consumers in the Northeast if labeling of genetically modified foods was mandated. The study region included 11 states, and Washington D.C., with a combined total population of 63.5 million in 2013.

Genetically engineered seeds were first introduced in the early 1990s for numerous reasons, including the ability to resist insects or herbicides. While there is little science around the safety of engineered seeds, the Food and Drug Administration has not found them to be unsafe, both sides of the issue agree. Scientists fall in both camps, with some dismissing concerns over GMOs and others saying they are too new to understand the biological effects.

Groups opposing the mandatory labeling legislation here include the Massachusetts Food Association, Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, and Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers.

“The dairy farming industry is a major component of local food production in Massachusetts; we oppose this mandatory and costly labeling bill because it would create disparity between states in which we sell our products,” Dave Shepard, president of the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers, said in a statement announcing the study.

The study said experiences with GMO labels in Europe show many shoppers will avoid genetically modified foods or pay less for foods with genetically modified ingredients.

“Finally it should be emphasized that the figures presented here are estimates as no one knows how consumers, and the food industry, will react if labeling is mandated,” the study stated.

The bill (H 3996) has cleared two committees, and is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. Story said she plans to write a letter to Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) to push for the bill to come to the floor for debate.

A Dempsey spokeswoman said staff are reviewing the bill, and could not say if it will be released.

“We are doing our due diligence. We are aware of people’s interest in it,” said Colleen McGonagle, a spokeswoman for Dempsey.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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