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Are Wal-Mart and Big Food Lobbying the FDA for a GMO Labeling Law?

Ronnie Cummins
organic consumers / News Analysis
Published: Thursday 10 January 2013
According to informed sources in Washington, DC, representatives of Wal-Mart, General Mills, Pepsi-Frito Lay, Mars, Coca-Cola and others are meeting with the FDA this week.
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High-level executives from some of the U.S.’s largest food corporations are meeting with the FDA behind closed doors this week to lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law. Could it be that bad press and consumer backlash have dulled the enthusiasm of these former biotech cheerleaders? Or is Big Food just cozying up to the FDA so they can derail the growing organic and anti-GMO movement and finagle a federal labeling law so toothless it won’t be worth the ink it takes to sign it?

According to informed sources in Washington, DC, representative of Wal-Mart, General Mills, Pepsi-Frito Lay, Mars, Coca-Cola and others are meeting with the FDA this week. Wal-Mart came under fire recently for selling unlabeled and likely hazardous GMO sweet corn in its stores. General Mills, Pepsi, Mars and Coca Cola have been the targets of numerous consumer boycotts, including a social media-powered boycott of "Traitor Brands: "natural” and organic brands whose parent companies contributed millions of dollars to defeat Prop 37, the Nov. 6 California Ballot Initiative to label GMO foods and ban the routine industry practice of marketing GMO foods as "natural" or "all natural."

The “Traitor Brands” boycott, initiated by the Organic Consumers Association, has been gaining steam as other groups pick up the flag. The boycott hasn’t gone unnoticed by company executives, either. Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman sent the OCA a letter defending his brand’s position, a position not unlike the one taken recently by Ben & Jerry’s.  Both companies absolve their brands of any responsibility for their parent companies’ donations to the NO on 37 campaign, claiming that they have no say in corporate-level decisions. 

But a look at the Facebook pages of some of the "Traitor Brands" reveals consumers’ anger and sense of betrayal. Brands like Honest Tea, Kashi, Muir Glen, Naked Juice, Cascadian Farms, Horizon, Silk, and Ben & Jerry’s, once sought out by quality-conscious, loyal consumers willing to pay a little extra for organic, sustainably produced products, have been tarnished by their association with the hardline anti-right-to-know policies of Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Pepsi, Dean Foods, and Unilever.

Add to that the growing controversy surrounding the pending commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) salmon; the prospect of upcoming high-profile GMO labeling legislative battles in Vermont and Connecticut; and I-522, a major ballot initiative working its way toward a November 2012 vote in Washington State, and it makes sense that the Big Food elite may be preparing for a tactical retreat from the largest food fight in U.S. history.

Is it possible that the threat posed by the growing grassroots GMO labeling movement has prompted a number of Fortune 500 corporations to abandon Monsanto and the biotech industry, and rethink the PR and bottom-line costs of clinging to their anti-right-to-know positions? After all, it’s not as if these companies are incapable of making GMO-free products. Though many Americans don’t know it, Wal-Mart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks - even McDonald’s - are GMO-free in Europe, thanks to strict GMO labeling laws.

Maybe Big Food, faced with the inevitability of states passing mandatory GMO labeling laws, is ready to throw in the towel? As Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, explained in November, big food corporations are happy they headed off mandatory GMO labeling by defeating Prop 37 in California but,  “. . . we hope we don’t have too many of them, because you can’t keep doing that over and over again . . .”. 

Or is this just a case of Big Food and indentured FDA bureaucrats conspiring to confuse consumers and slow the momentum of the nation’s fast-growing right-to-know and anti-GMO movement? Is this a “bait and switch” deal to get us to shut up, a tactic to derail the grassroots Movement that appears on track to pass strict GMO labeling laws in Washington, Vermont and Connecticut this year?

We should be wary of any compromise deal at the federal level, one that would preempt the passage of meaningful state GMO labeling laws that have real teeth. We don’t want to end up with a law like the one Japan passed in 2001. That law exempted all GMO foods except corn and soy from being labeled, allowed up to 5% GMO content in individual ingredients, and exempted cooking oils and other foods where transgenic DNA is difficult to detect. Similarly, a GMO law passed by Brazil under pressure from consumers and farmers contained no real requirements for enforcement, until a recent court decision against Nestle.

And let’s not forget what happened in late 2010 in another closed-door meeting, when members of the “Organic Elite,” including Whole Foods, tried to engineer a compromise with Monsanto and the USDA over “co-existence” between GMO alfalfa and organic crops.

Grassroots activism and marketplace pressure can bring about major changes in corporate behavior and even in public policy. When major food corporations, under pressure from consumers, break ranks with Monsanto and the biotech industry, GMO public policy and marketplace dynamics change dramatically.

The consumer-led rejection since 1994 of Monsanto’s family-scale dairy farmers and major dairy brands has kept rBGH marginalized. Currently less than 10% of U.S. dairy cows are injected with Monsanto’s (now Elanco’s) rBGH, a hormone linked to increased risk of cancer in humans, as well as major animal health damage. Thanks to consumer pressure, many leading dairy brands in the U.S. are labeled as “rBGH (or rBST) free;”  while rBGH is banned outright in Canada, Europe, Japan, and most industrialized nations.

In 2000, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pringles and McCain opposed Monsanto’s genetically engineered “New Leaf” potatoes. Their opposition kept these Bt-spliced “Frankenspuds” off the market. 

Similarly, opposition to Monsanto’s GE wheat in 2003, not only by U.S. wheat farmers, but also by General Mills and Frito-Lay, killed the commercialization of this multi-billion dollar crop. And it was consumer pressure that forced Starbucks and other coffee brands to keep GE coffee off the market.

If it’s true that Wal-Mart and a number of big food corporations are ready to compromise and allow labels on genetically engineered foods, don’t hold your breath for the Obama Administration’s FDA to quickly change course. For 20 years FDA bureaucrats, led by Michael “Monsanto” Taylor, the Obama-appointed FDA Food Safety Czar, have blocked all attempts to require mandatory federal GMO labeling. Our best chance to regain our right to know what’s in our food and begin to drive GMOs off the market is to stay on the offensive. We need to pass mandatory GMO labeling laws in the current frontline states of Washington, Vermont and Connecticut, and we need to step up the pressure on Food Inc. with our boycott of their “Traitor” brands.

And even after we win mandatory GMO labeling on produce and processed foods, which will realistically take at least several years, we will still need to fight for labels on GMO-fed, factory-farmed meat, dairy, and eggs, a more comprehensive labeling law that even the EU does not yet have in place.  At least 80% of GMO crops grown in the U.S. are destined for animal feed in factory farms. If we’re going to stop these environmentally disastrous farming practices, we’ll have to demand labeling of factory-farmed food. And that will require an unprecedented campaign of public education, direct action, and grassroots mobilization, similar to the campaign we are already waging for GMO labeling.

Hats off to the thousands of activists and millions of consumers and voters who have made GMOs and GMO labeling burning issues in the U.S. Wal-Mart and the Big Food lobby would not be sitting down behind closed doors this week asking the FDA to take action if it were not for the growing strength of our nationwide organic anti-GMO Movement. But, as more and more of us understand, this monumental food fight is not just about labeling GMOs. We are fighting, not just against Monsanto and genetically engineered foods, but for systemic change, a revolution in public consciousness, marketplace dynamics, and public policy. Yes we need to drive energy, pesticide, and chemical-intensive GMO crops and foods off the market. But in the long run our very survival demands that we build a healthy and sustainable food and farming system, a green and equitable economy, a stable climate, and a real democracy where citizens, not big corporations and their indentured politicians, rule.

Hats off to the thousands of activists and millions of consumers and voters who have made GMOs and GMO labeling burning issues in the U.S. Wal-Mart and the Big Food lobby would not be sitting down behind closed doors this week asking the FDA to take action if it were not for the growing online/marketplace/political activism of our nationwide organic anti-GMO Movement. But, as more and more of us understand, this monumental food fight is not just about labeling GMOs. We are fighting, as well, for a healthy and sustainable food and farming system, a green and equitable economy, a stable climate, and a real democracy where citizens, not corporations and their indentured politicians, rule.

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ABOUT Ronnie Cummins

Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including "Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers" (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).

GMO labeling is good i guess.

GMO labeling is good i guess. But I think that the bees are dying, bufferflies are too... I think all the GMOs in every nation have spread to everywhere. Our food supply is going to be cross tainted..

OF COURSE they NOW will support us because there plan of having gmos spread everywhere is out of control now.

Too late my gmo labeling friends.

In one regard commenter Folta

In one regard commenter Folta is not wrong. Much like product bar codes and numbers, a universally adopted, if in principle voluntary, labeling standard could aid consumers as well as retailers.

However, contra Folta, prop 37 was carefully written - and it failed to pass (by rather few votes) only because only too late were opponents' smears effectively rebutted. In comments to prior articles on this subject I have noted four generic smear tactics used by Monsanto et al in mailers to misleadingly represent prop 37 as 'inconsistent' when in fact it was quite consistent with both existing California food labeling laws and with what is and is not a GMO food.

Also, contra Folta, it's possible to distinguish between old-style genetic modifications - which mimicked what nature does or can do - and new-style biotech mods - which nature will not do.

Hi Joe. Good points, but I do

Hi Joe. Good points, but I do have to disagree with you on Prop37's language. It was AWFUL. Section 1 does not contain one true statement that is specific to GMO. Not one. There is no evidence for the claim. The whole thing was a joke and I'd be happy to cite specifics. You don't need to read past the first page to know it is activist garbage, not effective legislation.

It is embarrassing that the big companies ran a crappy fear campaign to fight labeling. It was as deplorable as the pro-prop37 fear tactics. However, when a group of uninformed, self-righteous whiners wants to change the law to affect food supply dynamics because they don't like a company, then companies should defend themselves vigorously.

It is like when the right wanted to take evolution out of science textbooks, or at least put creationism in. We fought that tooth and nail because it was what science needed to do. Same here.

Your last point is completely arbitrary. You are drawing a line where YOU don't understand it, not what science knows. Nature could never make most of the crosses that underlie your food. Man forces crosses, wide introgressions, polyploidy, etc. Plus, nature makes plenty of toxic compounds that we never monitor in food that could move around by traditional breeding no problem. At least with GMO you know the gene that is being added.

The message that needs to be

The message that needs to be delivered is that if we can't tell good corn from bad corn we just won't buy anything with corn in it to eat.
Let us make an informed choice or lose sales entirely.

Since the day after prop37

Since the day after prop37 failed (as it should have, it was a poorly-written bureaucratic, non-scientific farce) I have been lobbying various companies to adopt a voluntary label, simply by adding the word "transgenic" before the specific ingredients in the list of product ingredients. This is honest, non-inflammatory and cannot be mis-perceived as a warning label. It is accurate, scientifically correct and solves the problem.

This is likely the plan. The initials "GMO" are not reasonable to put on a label. Traditional breeding, mutation breeding, crosses between species (and other organic-accepted genetic-scrambling practices) are genetic modification, so scientifically everything we eat is a "GMO" and nothing is "natural". Everything we eat is a product of thousands or hundreds of years of human intervention.

In this light, the addition of 'transgenic' makes the labeling question palatable for everyone, in theory. Of course, this was never about food as much as it was a war on a single biotech company, so those seeking a skull-and-crossbones warning label will still complain. But it does provide the information, honestly and in the proper context. It defeats labeling initiatives and the need to defend science against the anti-scientific crazies. I think this is what you will see.

Spoken like a true Monsanto

Spoken like a true Monsanto shill. How about a little transparency here, are you on the corporate payroll, one of their paid lobbyists, 0ne of their sciencestutes or just a farmer in debt to Big Ag? How benign "transgenic" sounds, just the kind of duplicity and misinformation that led to the defeat of Prop 37. Such a benign word for something that science is showing to be dangerous and toxic. If "transgenic" food is so "palatable" why won't the Europeans eat it? Calling GMO poison "transgenic" is exactly what Monsanto wants, another lie. Why spend $45 million to fight the right of people to know what is in their food, when you have already spent so much money bribing the USDA, Congress and the President. Monsanto's Plan B is so much more cost effective.

Of course Monsanto is going

Of course Monsanto is going for Plan B after Prop 37. It’s going to be the USDA organic label only a hundred times worse. The industrial food corporations quickly realized that there was a lot of money to be made in providing non-toxic, healthy food. Big Ag only needed to weaken and modify the USDA organic standard to still make a good profit. A GMO labeling law is another matter, as one corporate executive said, you might as well put the skull and crossbones on the GMO label. As the European union has shown, if consumers are given fair and accurate labeling they will overwhelmingly reject foods containing GMO ingredients. Given corporate control over the USDA, Congress and the President, it would be foolish and naïve to expect that any GMO labeling standard that comes out of USDA will be anything but toxic farce designed to confuse and misinform consumers. That is why the food movement needs to establish their own label and standards and push for responsible producers to voluntarily label their food “GMO Free.” The food movement then needs to spend its political energy convincing the public that if the “GMO Free” label is not on the food, you don’t know what you are getting. The U.S. food movement needs to follow the lead of Navdanya’s “Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer” campaign.

These evil corporations

These evil corporations aren't meeting with the FDA for OUR benefit!

Most likely they're straining for a way to keep force-feeding us this CRAP, and label it "Natural".

I've been boycotting Kraft, Frito-Lay, Coca-cola, Pepsi, and Con-agra because of their financial support of the propaganda campaign that defeated Proposition 37.

I'm going to CONTINUE boycotting these disgusting corporate brands even after frankenfoods are labelled, because they've shown they have contempt for consumers and consumers' health.

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