The most important issue currently facing the Grocery Manufacturers Association is piecemeal state and local efforts to require the labeling of food and beverage products that are formulated using ingredients from genetically modified sources.
“It is our biggest priority,” said Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the G.M.A., in an interview with Food Business News.
The labeling battle is being waged on two fronts. First, the G.M.A. and several other industry groups are embroiled in a lawsuit with the state of Vermont, which has passed and is in the process of implementing a state law that would require the labeling of products made with G.M.O.s beginning on July 1, 2016.
The groups sued the state and requested a preliminary injunction be granted to halt implementation. A U.S. district court denied the request. But the court also denied the state of Vermont’s motions to dismiss issues brought up by the coalition of industry groups seeking the injunction.
“The process follows the timing and process laid out by the court,” Ms. Bailey said. “The state of Vermont will be filing a reply in August and oral arguments will begin sometime this fall. Our expectation is that any decision will come later this fall, but the timing is determined by the courts.”
In the meantime, she said many of the G.M.A.’s membership are looking at their supply chain and trying to figure out how they would implement the law.
“We are hearing over and over that it is much more expensive than people previously anticipated,” Ms. Bailey said. “For example, most companies ship their products outside of Vermont to a distribution center in New York, Massachusetts or New Jersey. They very rarely ship products into Vermont. In many cases, once the product reaches the distribution center the manufacturers don’t have control over the product any longer. To sort this out is a complex and, in the end, a very expensive process.”
The second front in the battle over G.M.O. labeling is in Congress. On July 23, the House of Representatives approved the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599). The bill would require labeling of a food produced from a genetically engineered plant only if the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines there is a “material difference” between the food produced and its comparable food.
“We think the vote in the House was very positive,” Ms. Bailey said. “We expect the Senate to favorably act on the bill. We were very pleased with the broad bipartisan support in the house. We expect there will be action certainly this year, the sooner the better.
“We are working with a very large coalition and that is one of the reasons this legislation has been so successful. This effort is farm-to-fork in a way that has not been united before. It includes farm groups, food processors, retailers and restaurant groups that have all worked hard on this legislation.”
Sound science and the D.G.A.
While G.M.O. labeling may be the G.M.A.’s biggest priority, the association is also working on a variety of other issues. The G.M.A. expressed concern about the Dietary Guidelines for America Committee’s recommendations that were published this past February.
“The Dietary Guidelines for America are very important and it’s important for them to be based on sound science,” Ms. Bailey said. “I think we have seen over the years that science and the process used to develop the Dietary Guidelines has to be very rigorous and grounded in the best available science. The focus this year on sustainable food production and ingredients was outside the scope of the guidelines.”
She added that even with the best available science, contributors to the D.G.A. must be open to new and evolving ideas.
“I think sodium is one that is particularly interesting,” she said. “The science continues to evolve. There was the I.O.M. (Institute of Medicine) report in 2013 that raised serious and well-grounded issues about the 1,500 mg level. In fact it also suggested (the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America recommendation) of less than 2,300 might not be accurate. We have to be careful on sodium. Ten years ago the discussion was completely different.
“The same is happening with fats. Our understanding is changing and the Dietary Guidelines committee agrees it is important to get it right.”
The G.M.A. will be holding its annual Leadership Forum Aug. 14-16 in Colorado Springs. The agenda at this year’s meeting will look beyond many of the public policy and regulatory issues the association is dealing with. Rather, the focus will be on new product development, e-commerce and using data to improve new product development and supply chain efforts.
“Big data and e-commerce are two areas our member companies are interested in,” Ms. Bailey said. “Through the leadership conference we provide platforms for our members and partners to talk about the subjects. We are fortunate to have an associate membership base that has a number of experts who focus on big data and supply chain. We really look to those associate partners for information that is responsive to the needs of our member companies.”