GMO Labeling Isn't Perfect, But It's Progress

Michael Joseph is a stickler for consumer transparency. You could say it's in his DNA. His father, Joel Joseph, is chairman of the Made in USA Foundation, and played an integral role in establishing a federal law requiring country-of-origin labeling on food products. "I grew up being exposed to consumer transparency from a really young age," says the younger Joseph. "As a teenager, shopping with Dad was pretty weird."

As founder and CEO of Green Chef, Joseph now oversees the country's premier USDA-certified organic meal-kit delivery service. As such, Joseph can tell you with confidence that the aromatic arugula in your weekly Green Chef goodie box is produced without pesticides. He can further confirm that the salmon is wild-caught and that the beef is grass-fed and antibiotic-free.

But even he can't tell you with 100 percent certainty that the same box contains absolutely no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). "Almost never," he says. "I can't say conclusively no. I think the answer is no."

Ninety-five percent of the nearly 150 different ingredients that the Boulder, Colorado–based company ships out to its customers each week are certified organic, meaning no GMOs in that stuff in accordance with federal regulations; it's the other 5 percent that's a mystery, Joseph says.

That's because unlike many other countries around the world, the U.S. does not yet require GMO labeling of non-organic foods.

Luckily for transparency hawks like Joseph, this glaring information gap could soon be closing. Last week, Vermont became the first U.S. state to require GMO labeling for most packaged foods. This week, the U.S. Senate is poised to vote on its own GMO-labeling bill, one that would overturn Vermont's law and prevent other states from following suit while the U.S. Department of Agriculture works out a federal standard for labeling GMO foods nationwide over the next two years.

However the political process unfolds, the tide is already turning in favor of additional labeling. Manufacturers including General Mills, Mars and ConAgra have started adding disclaimers like "produced with genetic engineering" to certain products in order to comply with Vermont's law rather than quit doing business in the Green Mountain State entirely.

Stakeholders like Joseph appreciate the reduction in guesswork. "This information will help us out, just to do our job," says the Green Chef honcho, who supports the adoption of a federal standard.

Even with the new disclosures, consumers aren't necessarily getting the full story. Simply stating that an ingredient is "produced with genetic engineering," as the Vermont law stipulates, doesn't really get into the specific degree of scientific manipulation, for instance. There's a vast difference between crossbreeding different plants to create the best-tasting fruit and, say, injecting corn with fish DNA so the stalks can produce their own pesticide — two starkly divergent examples of genetic engineering that get bandied about by proponents and opponents of this hotly contested issue.

In that light, the Vermont law really only provides consumers with little more than an additional hint about how their food was made. Is it enough?

"I don't think it's ever going to be enough," says Joseph. "We're working on some interesting things at my company right now to expose even more details, like giving transparency to the pesticides that were used to grow something. Do I think that's enough information? No. But it's more. I would argue that it's progress."