The first few days of the New Year brought the news of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-mandated shutdown of a meat-processing facility in Minnesota, legal action in Oregon against the makers of a vitamin supplement and the announcement by General Mills regarding its processing of a major cereal product.
Food safety is a growing issue of concern in the United States in lockstep with the trend toward healthier eating and a more active lifestyle. Several groups initiated studies in 2013 that indicated a much greater awareness by the American general public toward the purchase of more natural food products and a pivot away from processed food.
The explosion in the amount of natural food line extension products, as well as the growing popularity of store chains such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, are evidence of this shift in the dynamics of U.S. grocery purchasing.
The GMO label debate
The American public has organized in large numbers to raise concerns on the state level about the safety and contents of its food. Unlike other countries, the United States has no federal laws requiring food companies to disclose whether they use genetically modified organisms in their products.
The efforts on the state level have resulted in Maine and Connecticut passing regulations regarding the disclosure of GMOs in food. However, neither state has determined a method to enforce those respective regulations. Some form of GMO disclosure regulatory bill is being debated for potential legislative action in 26 states in the United States.
In my experience in the food industry, the state-by-state method of regulating food products for the disclosure of GMOs will be unsuccessful. My opinion is shaped by my knowledge of the regulatory process involving food and beverage products as well as the viewpoints of the various stakeholders involved.
The food industry is regulated and overseen by agencies with a federal mandate -- the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration -- and they are tasked with the inspection of food-production facilities as well as maintaining the safety of the food supply chain.
Food-ingredient suppliers, the farmers and other food-industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America also have a vested interest in the regulatory process involving the food supply.
Therefore, the focus should be on obtaining a federal solution to this growing issue regarding GMO disclosure.
The perfect example of the pitfalls to the state level approach was the California ballot initiative on GMO disclosure in 2012. The groups supporting the law, which would have forced the disclosure of GMO ingredients in food, gained a strong base of support. The large international food and beverage industry players such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, BASF and Kraft pooled their resources and launched their own advertising campaign in opposition to the ballot initiative.
The campaign was huge and very expensive for the food and beverage industry companies involved but it was successful. The ballot measure requiring the disclosure of the GMO ingredients failed in California.
In fact, the industry groups involved, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and the groups representing food ingredient manufacturers have stated that a federal solution would be more viable than a state-by-state regulation in this case.
The counterpoint made by the FDA, the G.M.A., and other groups is that the food and beverage products with GMO ingredients are safe even though they aren't labeled specifically because they are tested thoroughly for safety.
They maintain that the new labeling requirements, which would be created through GMO disclosure legislation, will be costly for the small farmers and the verification agencies involved in the process.
I know through my industry experience that any change to a product label has a cost factor associated with it that has to be absorbed or passed along to the consumer. The label change to inform consumers about the GMO contents in a food or beverage product has a very strong probability of increasing the cost of those products in the future.
In addition, the changes to mainstream food production to a GMO-free formula are going to be very difficult to achieve. This is due to the presence of corn, soy or other components which cannot be adequately sourced due to the widespread use of genetically modified seed in those crops.
A "huge win"
The recent announcement by General Mills that it will manufacture Cheerios cereal in a GMO-free formula represents a big step forward by a major U.S. food company with regard to the trend away from those types of ingredients in the U.S. food supply.
The interest groups involved in the effort to eliminate GMO ingredients from food praised the decision by General Mills, one group called it a "huge win" for their cause.
The decision by the giant food manufacturer could prompt a wave of other similar changes regarding GMO removal across a variety of well-established food product brand lines in the near future.
The first week of 2014 has been filled in the U.S. domestic news cycle with issues surrounding the safety of the food supply and a push back against GMO-containing products. Unfortunately with inherent problems, such as the lack of viable suppliers of meat and dairy products raised without GMO feed to be able to meet the demand of a huge marketplace, these topics won't be resolved in the next several months.
However, the progress toward potential solutions relative to the issues with GMOs and food safety is a big component of the American lexicon and it is going to have a large role in the national discourse for the foreseeable future.
(Frank J. Maduri is a freelance writer and journalist with professional experience across a variety of industries including food technology, pharmaceuticals and environmental products. He has been involved in several large-scale food product launches from the supplier side.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)