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Will GMO Labeling Raise Your Grocery Store Bill?

It’s certainly what the groups who oppose labeling want you to think. But it might not be so simple.

Will GMO Labeling Raise Your Grocery Store Bill?
[Image via Shutterstock]

Even though California’s Proposition 37–legislation that would’ve required labeling of foods containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients–failed to pass last year, the battle over GMO labeling is raging on across the country. Nowhere is the battle more heated than in the state of Washington, where a GMO-labeling bill (I-522) will be up for voters to accept or reject on November 5th.

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Many of the same issues that came up during the Prop 37 debate are being rehashed again, including the possible costs to producers, grocers, and consumers of labeling and switching out GMO ingredients and the fact that certain products (like meat and dairy) don’t require labeling. Last month, pro-labeling group Just Label It put out an study concluding that GMO labeling won’t, in fact, affect consumer food prices. But how accurate is it?

After considering all the factors that affect food prices in supermarkets–shopper demographics, competition, store size, and so on–the report concludes:

In terms of changes made to product labels by food processors and their impact on a product’s retail prices, it is clear that label changes are a minor element in the complex and fluid mix of pricing considerations that drive the price of an individual product. Food processors regularly make changes to the labels of their products – as part of ongoing product innovation to anticipate and meet changing consumer demands and for other marketing or regulatory reasons. There are no studies that document the impact of a product’s label change on prices charged by supermarkets.

This was a point that anti-labeling advocates have tried to press in the past. When we spoke last year to Kathy Fairbanks, a representative of the anti-Prop 37 campaign, she said: “If they decide to add labels, that carries a cost, and if they decide they need to change out ingredients, that’s a massive, massive cost.”

This time around, Washington’s I-522 campaign isn’t claiming that labeling itself will add a cost. Instead, they say, it’s the fact that producers will feel forced to switch out their ingredients because of the fear of having a “warning” label on their products–and that’s what will drive costs upwards for consumers. “The real cost has nothing to do with relabeling. This has to do with remaking food to avoid putting a label on it,” says Dana Bieber, a spokesperson for the “No on I-522” campaign. She points to a Washington Research Council study claiming that the legislation could raise costs $450 per year for a family of four if producers decide to switch out ingredients.

Christopher Miller, social mission activism manager at Ben & Jerry’s (which supports labeling and is in the process of removing all GMO ingredients), admits that making the switch to non-GMO ingredients is a challenge. “This is a complicated and complex transition for us,” he says.

Think about a popular Ben & Jerry’s flavor like Phish Food. You might think there are only a handful of ingredients: there’s chocolate ice cream with caramel and a marshmallow swirl with fish-shaped pieces of fudge. But within those ingredients there are 38 sub-ingredients (things like soy lecithin), and over three dozen suppliers involved in the process. “You’re chasing after little parts of chunks and swirls,” explains Miller.

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Bieber, for her part, believes that forcing other producers to follow the Ben & Jerry’s lead is unfair. “Ben & Jerry’s wants to do this for their own marketing purposes. It’s unfair for them to want a warning label on their competitor’s products, particularly when we have a 100% reliable labeling system that works right now,” she says, noting that organic labeling standards automatically exclude GMO products.

It may seem unlikely now, but a national GMO labeling standard isn’t out of the question. And if that happens, companies like Ben & Jerry’s will be better prepared than most. “I tend to think that this is coming–that this issue is not going away,” says Miller.

That much, at least, is undeniable. No matter what happens with I-522, the labeling battle in the U.S. will continue.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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