March 8, 2016

U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator:

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, urges you to oppose S. 2609, a bill by Senator Roberts that was recently approved by the Agriculture Committee and which we understand may soon be considered by the full Senate. The bill would eliminate duly enacted state laws requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food without replacing them with a reasonably similar federal standard for mandatory, on-package labeling.

Instead, we urge you to support S. 2621, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act. This bill would set a national standard and avoid a patchwork of state labeling laws while still ensuring that all consumers, no matter where they are in the country, have the information they overwhelmingly say they want.

Consumers Union supports mandatory labeling of GE food, and opposes the Roberts bill, for several reasons. First, consumers want labeling. Polls, including our own and those conducted by others such as the New York Times, show that more than 90% of consumers want GE food to be labeled accordingly. Support is strong regardless of political affiliation or region of the country. States have acted to carry out the wishes of their citizens by requiring a modest disclosure: “produced with genetic engineering.”

Second, there are precedents for mandatory labeling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already requires food to be labeled if it is homogenized, frozen, or made from concentrate, in order to provide consumers desired information. Some 64 countries, including most of our major trading partners, require labeling of GE food.

Third, labeling would not be expensive. An analysis commissioned by Consumers Union and conducted by an independent economic research firm found from a review of published research that the median cost of requiring GE food labeling is $2.30 per person annually – less than a penny a day for each consumer.1 Campbell Soup Company, which recently announced it will voluntarily label all its products that contain GE ingredients, has said that the changes could be worked in “with little cost,” assuming national labeling standards are implemented.2 Like Consumers Union, Campbell’s supports S. 2621.

There are a variety of ways to establish a uniform national standard for disclosing GE food ingredients. However, any standard that the Senate may pursue should include labeling that is mandatory. S. 2609, the Roberts bill, would maintain the current, flawed federal policy in which any labeling of GE food must be the voluntary choice of the food producer. Voluntary labeling has already been FDA policy since 2001, and codifying it would only prolong the marketplace confusion that has been pervasive over the last 15 years.

Any national standard should also provide consumers with clear and straightforward information directly on the package. S. 2621, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act, would do so—while also providing food companies the flexibility to choose from one of several different types of labels, including three options in the ingredients list section of the Nutrition Facts Panel. Another option would give FDA the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers, which would disclose the presence of GE ingredients on packaging.

It would not serve consumers for a national standard to provide GE information only through more complex means, such as a scannable code, website, or telephone number. Consumers should not be required to go through a multi-step process for every product they consider simply to determine if it contains GE ingredients. Specifically, with regard to scannable codes, consumers have expressed a clear preference for labels right on the package, visible to the naked eye. Nearly nine in ten likely 2016 voters recently surveyed preferred printed, on-package information over scannable bar codes for labels indicating whether food at the grocery store contains GE ingredients. Only 8% preferred the scannable code.3 Moreover, numerous consumers may be unable to search for information about GE ingredient content using a QR code—such as because of a lack of familiarity with the technology or because they lack a smartphone, as three out of four older Americans and about half of rural residents do.4

For these reasons, we urge you to oppose S. 2609, the Roberts bill, as well as any similar version of the legislation that would preempt strong state laws yet fail to establish a national standard for mandatory, on-package GE food labeling. We instead urge you to support S. 2621, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act, which would provide real disclosure to consumers while giving food producers flexibility and certainty.

Sincerely,

Jean Halloran
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
Consumers Union

[1] Consumers Union, “Cost of labeling genetically engineered food will be minimal” (Feb. 22, 2016) (online at consumersunion.org/2016/02/cost-of-labeling-genetically-engineered-food-will-be-minimal).
[2] “Campbell Labels Will Disclose G.M.O. Ingredients,” New York Times (Jan. 7, 2016).
[3] Consumers Union, “New Poll: Nearly 9 in 10 Americans Want Labels on GMO Food” (Dec. 2, 2015) (online at consumersunion.org/news/new-poll-nearly-nine-in-10-americans-want-labels-on-gmo-food).
[4] Pew Research Center, “The Smartphone Difference” (April 2015) (online at www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015).