Is labeling of genetically modified foods possible in one state?

The initiative to label GM foods in Oregon, known as Measure 27, attracted national attention in the U.S., pitting individual consumers and environmental groups who want GM foods labeled against food and biotech industry groups who argue that labeling will be costly and burdensome.

When asked about the feasibility of labeling GM foods in one state, Mel Bankoff, president of Emerald Valley Kitchen, an organic food manufacturer based in Eugene, Oregon, and a major sponsor of the labeling initiative says, "You have to start somewhere."

According to William K. Jaeger, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, mandatory labeling in Oregon would not be highly costly to consumers or regulators. Based on economic analyses done in other countries that label GM foods, Jaeger estimates costs ranging from $0.23 per person per year to about $10 per person per year. Jaeger says Measure 27 would likely impose additional costs on food producers and distributors due to the inclusion of language that requires labeling of foods not destined for Oregon markets.

Survey of experts

The Non-GMO Source surveyed a group of experts in identity preservation and non-GMO production on the feasibility to label GM foods in one state and the ability to source non-GM ingredients.

Listed below are the comments we received.

"I do not think it is economically justifiable to require labeling for biotech traits in foods. Our science-based system of product approval in the United States provides the protection we need regarding nutrition and food safety. Labeling for biotech traits will place an unnecessary burden on the food and agricultural industry. If consumers desire to purchase foods without biotech traits they have the option of selecting organic products.

"I don't think one should assume food companies will all rush to use non-GMO inputs even if they are required to label. If a company elects to use non-GMO inputs for their food products they will need to determine whether or not it is economical."

Larry Svajgjr, executive director, Indiana Crop Improvement Association (agency conducting GMO testing and non-GMO certification)


"Labeling GE foods will involve cost, but that cost should be born by the food companies. What is the cost of our environment?

"Non-GE ingredients sometimes cost the same as GE, but in the case of minor ingredients, the cost for non-GE is often exorbitant.

"When more companies in North America move to a non-GE standard, volumes will go up and the costs will go down. In Europe where GE ingredients are largely not used at all, there is little or no cost differentiation between GE and non-GE ingredients. Once Oregon passes it's GE labeling law, other states would follow, and soon, hopefully, we'll have cost parity between GE and non-GE ingredients.

Arran Stephens, president, Nature's Path Foods (organic food manufacturer)


"Unless Oregon is self-sufficient in food I do not see how they can either successfully or cost-effectively label GE foods. For people who want the choice it will probably be more cost-effective to buy organic.

"Non-GMO ingredients can be sourced but not at the same price. The price should not double, but it price will be higher - depending on the product and ingredients.

"There is a worldwide trend toward traceability of food sources. This will raise the cost of food to some extent. As tracking systems develop, the costs of these procedures will decrease."

Expert in identity preservation


"There are big laws about interstate commerce. One state cannot create a law that punishes or takes advantage of any other state. I'll be surprised if they can do this. We tried protecting clear hilum soybeans from being genetically modified in Iowa but Pioneer and Monsanto sent lawyers threatening to sue over the interstate commerce law situation."

Paul Lang, Natural Products, Inc., (supplier of non-GM and organic soy ingredients)


"Yes, Oregon could require labeling, and they could be effective in doing so in much the same way Europe will be effective in doing so. But Oregon will not represent a big enough market for some current providers of food/feed to accept the expense of segregation. So, I would expect that the choices available in the non-GMO market would be somewhat reduced from the conventional offerings.

"Some companies selling food products into Oregon will very smoothly supply segregated, non-GMO products at no additional costs. Some will do so at increased costs. Some will just go ahead and label with a GMO sticker because the costs and liability risks of supplying non-GMO will outweigh the benefits. Companies gearing to supply foods to Europe should have little or no trouble meeting the Oregon standards."

Lynn Clarkson, president, Clarkson Grain (supplier of organic and non-GM grains)


"It would be a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare if food companies have to put special labels on products sold in Oregon. Food companies work with large volumes and if they have to establish a separate stream of products for one state it would be very difficult.

"The ability to source non-GMO depends on what the product is. In Europe, some companies have been able to substitute lupins for soy. Companies must decide whether to substitute across the board in all their products. Sourcing substitute ingredients will be a continual challenge."

Kim Cooper, executive director, Ontario Soybean Growers


"If the labeling policy is the same as in Europe there is some precedent for comparison. Labeling has worked in Europe; otherwise they wouldn't propose to make the rules stricter.

"The key to labeling is traceability, not tolerances. GMO tolerances shouldn't be the key because it makes testing more important, but you can't test every product.

"With traceability the emphasis is on due diligence. In this way, food companies can guarantee their whole system without having to guarantee that every soybean is non-GMO.

"If the legislation encourages establishment of traceability systems it will provide a good foundation to the supply chain. Testing then becomes a check and balance to see if the system works.

"If the legislation focuses on traceability of the supply chain, it can be done. It is being done in Europe, and hundreds of companies there can attest to this."

Gerald Fowler, president, Manna International (non-GMO traceability firm) (November 2002)