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Label News: The cost of GMO labeling

By Catherine Diamond, Associate Editor | May 27, 2014

The debate rages on, but few are actually clear on how much this could cost consumers (as well as converters).

Few topics are as emotionally charged as the food we eat. It is the centerpiece of nearly every milestone in life. We use it to celebrate, to mourn, to comfort, and, as noted in a previous L&NW article, to achieve health. So, it comes as no surprise that the ongoing debate over genetically modified foods (specifically, whether or not they should be labeled as such), has reached a fever pitch.

Numerous food agencies of varying authority have deemed GMO foods as safe for consumption. However, several European

countries have banned their production and sale, and several states in the US are considering doing the same. Because the bans are relatively new, however, few people can say with any certainty what the costs might be, and whether or not they're worth it. Here's what we do know so far:

Last year, the Washington Academy of Sciences released a report called White Paper on Washington State Initiative 522: Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients. At the time of the report's release, panel co-chair Eugene Nester, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, told the Seattle Times that "the numbers just aren't there, and the numbers that are there vary widely." The debate has, unsurprisingly, become partisan, with each side throwing their own "facts" out into the void. Pro-labeling ads that were run  in Washington claimed that passing I-522 wouldn't raise the cost of food for consumers. Opponents, citing a study, claimed the average food bill for a family of four would increase by $450 per year. 

Once the Washington Academy of Sciences took a look at the data – collected largely after failed efforts in Oregon and California and successful labeling in Europe – they determined that the primary cost of labeling GMO products comes not from the actual labeling, but from food producers "having to separate genetically enhanced ingredients from other foods."

The panel said, "Mandatory labeling is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington. These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer in higher food prices." 

Other studies have had conflicting results. Opponents of GMO labeling often cite a study by the Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants. That report had a similar finding to the Washington Academy of Sciences; researches concluded that the costs would be incurred at the production level and would be passed on to consumers. Conversely, the Alliance for Natural Health, a "pro-labeling" organization based out of the UK, determined that consumers will likely see no increase in prices. 

Recently, Slate examined the inconsistency in these estimates: "This disparity hinges less on sloppy science or ideological bias than a basic disagreement over how food suppliers and consumers would react to a freshly minted GMO label. One side – the no cost/low cost advocates – equates a labeling mandate with little more than the paper and ink required to manufacture the label. The idea here is that food suppliers and consumers wouldn’t necessarily shift their purchasing choices in the face of a GMO designation. Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott gave a nod to this assumption when he asked, 'Ever seen the words ‘new and improved’ on some boxed delicacy?' His implication was that the consumer’s gaze glosses over new labels all the time without leading to a radical shift in purchasing behavior. Why would it be any different with a GMO label?"

In spite of the potential costs to consumers, one could make the argument, from a converter's perspective, that labeling GMO foods could be costly. The process for labeling GMO foods may very well be similar to labeling a line of products with multiple SKUs. Converters who use digital equipment may not bat an eye at the proposed regulations. But, in states where GMO labeling could soon be made mandatory, it could change the local landscape in terms of competition for converters. 

We at L&NW want to know what you think about this issue as converters. Do you believe GMO labeling laws in your state would be a challenge? Would it prompt you to buy new equipment? Leave us a comment below! 

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