After 1-522: Discussing a national solution

Washington voters have rejected a ballot initiative that would have required the labeling of certain products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the state. Ballots are still being counted, but the current count shows 52 percent of Washington voters voted “no,” while approximately 48 percent said “yes” – a margin that cannot, statistically, be overcome.

If it had passed, Initiative 522 would have made Washington the first and only U.S. state to require such labeling. Legislation passed in Connecticut and Maine would require additional actions, such as neighboring states passing similar measures, before taking effect – and that hasn’t happened.

But proponents say they’ll be back.  They argue such measures would support a consumer’s “right to know” – and dismiss concerns about setting such standards at the state level.  Opponents counter that a state-by-state approach could result in a patchwork of different labels in different states based on differing standards that would increase the cost of products for companies and consumers alike.

General Mills has long opposed state-based labeling, and we did oppose I-522, as we disclosed and discussed on

But the results in Washington also reinforce the need for discussion of a national solution – and we’ve spoken out on that as well.

Currently, there is no national, government-approved standard for labeling non-genetically modified (GM) products in the U.S.  The lack of a national standard complicates the matter for businesses that may wish to produce non-GM foods, and a patchwork of differing state standards would only confuse consumers wishing to buy them.

A government-approved national standard for labeling non-GM products does exist in Europe and Canada, and General Mills believes a national standard for labeling non-GM products would benefit American consumers as well.

The labeling standard for organic food products in the U.S. could be an excellent model for such an approach.  Organic labeling standards are established at the national level, and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These standards allow organic food producers to certify and label their products as “organic” in a manner that is nationally regulated, reliable and meaningful to consumers.

Organic certification already serves as something of a proxy for a federally regulated non-GMO label. The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic modification, among other requirements, enabling General Mills to offer organic alternatives in most of our major categories in the U.S., which by definition cannot use GM ingredients. 

An affirmative, nationally-standardized non-GMO label would help interested consumers reliably identify products that are made without the use of biotechnology, if that is their preference, while allowing companies to reliably market and label products to meet those consumers’ needs.

It’s not a question of safety.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.N. World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the European Food Safety Authority, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada all agree that foods produced through approved biotechnology are as safe and essentially identical to their non-genetically modified counterparts.  Global food safety experts also note that not a single incident of harm to health or safety has been demonstrably linked to the use of GMOs anywhere in the world.

For the record, biotech seeds have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers for almost 20 years. In the U.S., for example, because U.S. farmers often use GM seeds to grow certain crops, 70 percent of foods on U.S. grocery store shelves likely contain GM ingredients – and have for years.

We know this debate will continue.  But we also feel that a national standard that would enable companies to reliably label and market products as non-GM for those consumers seeking that choice – makes sense.

And this may be the perfect time to give that suggestion some serious thought.