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Why New GMO Labels Might Not Tell The Whole Story

Congress approved legislation that would require some form of packaging label showing if food contains genetically-modified ingredients.

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Fabi Calvo checking the food label on various types of granola before making a selection.

Fabi Calvo checking the food label on various types of granola before making a selection.

Fabi Calvo pays pretty close attention to what’s in her food. She’s careful when she’s at the grocery store, not just because she’s allergic to milk, but because she cares about what she’s eating in general, something many of us can relate to.

Congress recently approved legislation that requires food labels to list genetically-modified ingredients or GMOs. You would think it’s as easy as just looking on the packaging to see what’s in the food you’re eating. For example, the number of calories can clearly be seen on a nutrition label. However, the GMO labeling bill could make it a little trickier to see the information on packaging, and it’s resulted in some mistrust from consumers.

More About The Controversial Labeling Bill

Unlike nutrition labels that clearly list what’s in the product, the bill requires packages to either have a text label, a symbol, or an electronic code readable by smartphone, which indicates whether the food contains GMOs.

Agriculture groups, which once fought against mandatory labeling, support the bill. However, many pro-labeling advocates are unhappy with the new bill. They call the regulations cheating because it’s not required to list straightforward information.

Director of Communications for the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, Jessica Eise calls the bill a very clear compromise.

“You get a little bit of what some want and a little bit of what others want,” she says, “and you get this kind of in the middle solution which no one is totally happy with.”

Consumers want transparent information about what’s in their food. Bloomington resident Jackie Flores says they probably won’t get it, especially with electronic labeling.

“I’m not going to put forth the effort to really figure out what’s in my food and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way,” Flores says. “They’d just rather have a label on the packaging instead of having to search online or something.”

GMO Topic Was A Controversy From The Start

But, the controversy over GMOs in general, not just with labeling, is a complicated one and, Eise says it’s been an issue since the beginning.

“It’s a terrifying name,” Eise says. “Most people don’t know what it is. It sounds like you don’t want your food that way so, from the get go it kind of had an awkward start in terms of public perception of GMOs.”

A 2012 Pew study that looked at a wide range of topics even found the highest disparity between scientific and public perception to be the topic of GMOs. Eighty-eight percent of scientists say GMOs are safe with only around 37 percent of U.S. adults agreeing.

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Part of that, Eise says, is because the agricultural industry didn’t respond well to the shift in consumers’ interest in food. With the bill, they’re slowly making strides to catch up.

“Essentially it put forward this kind of crisis to the agricultural sector, like how are we going to deal with the logistics of a patchwork of laws across the states,” she says. “It’s going to be very costly. It’s going to be very confusing.”

Local Response To GMO Labeling Debate

The Bloomington Farmer’s Market even felt the need to respond to consumer concern over GMOs. Nearly a year ago, officials held a GMO panel to gauge public opinion on the topic. Many voiced their desire for clear labeling, others argued against misconceptions.

Columbus Farmer David Simmons says it’s unfortunate there’s so much misinformation. He thinks GMOs are safe and uses it for sweet corn.

“I’m really looking more at educating people rather than having people label something because labeling insinuates risk, but educating, just like this event, we’re educating on what GMO is,” Simmons says.

Farmer’s Market Manager Marcia Veldman says the farmer’s market decided to create its own regulations to ease concern. A sign must have at least an inch and a half tall letters and say GMO crop on it.

“We wanted to respond to customers interest. I think a lot of the reason a lot people shop at the farmer’s market is because of a certain level of transparency,” Veldman says.

Veldman says with a signed bill, the farmer’s market will review its regulations to make sure they are in compliance. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has two years to write the rules to the bill, leaving many details unanswered.

Note: The video and original audio titles Jessica Eise as a spokesperson for Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics. She is the Director of Communications, not a spokesperson. 

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