Arizona Considering Labeling Law for Genetically Modified Food

Advocates for GMO labeling are getting another shot in the Arizona Legislature. Six representatives submitted a bill to require food containing even just one genetically engineered ingredient be labeled as such.

Modeled after Vermont's legislation, HB 2462 will also prohibit manufacturers from advertising GMO products as "all natural." (Prepared food would be exempt from labeling.)

State Representative Juan Mendez, the bill's primary author, says it's about consumer protection. "Saying no to labeling means I don't think I should have the choice to know what I'm consuming," Mendez tells New Times. He says this initiative isn't different from requiring manufacturers to list nutrition facts and ingredients because it's just stating the facts, not making a value or safety judgment.

Arizona is not alone in considering GMO-labeling legislation. According to the Center for Food Safety, more than 30 states have introduced bills and three have passed laws: Connecticut and Maine approved laws with trigger clauses, meaning they won't go into effect until more states pass similar laws, and Vermont's labeling law will take effect next year.

In Arizona, it's only a matter time before some very vocal adversaries surface. Mendez expects a lot of pushback from those worried about their bottom line. (Chemical and food companies spent $100 million in major anti-labeling campaigns in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California.)

The Arizona Farm Bureau is one entity guaranteed to fight the bill. It opposes mandatory labeling because it "will give consumers a false impression that these foods are different and "may lead to decreased demand for GM goods."

Julie Murphree of the Farm Bureau says the main issue is the word "mandatory." Mandatory means more production costs; costs that invariably will be passed on to the consumer. The Farm Bureau, she says, has no problem with manufacturers choosing to label their products as containing GMO ingredients -- but given the stigma, what company would advertise that?

"Corporations should be proud of their products," says Mendez. "So what does it tell me as a consumer if a corporation wants to hide that information?"

Murphree believes that while proponents of labeling claim "a right-to-know," it's actually about "a right-to-misinform." She doesn't oppose the bill because she opposes transparency. She opposes it because it creates unnecessary fear without bringing any value to the consumer. If you want to avoid GMOs, just stick to the outer aisles of the grocery store and buy organic, she adds.

In Arizona, where agriculture is a $17.1 billon industry, the Farm Bureau embraces GMOs for economic reasons. Its official policy on the subject says that "the use of biotechnology in agriculture has greatly increased yields, decreased the amounts of pesticides used by farmers, and been proven safe by years of scientific study." If demand decreases, the Bureau thinks it "may lead to crucial crop shortages, increased food insecurity, and a decrease in advances within the field of agricultural biotechnology."

Mendez believes that argument is overblown, noting that hunger is not an issue of the quantity of food available. "We have hunger issues because of access issues. And GMOs don't provide more access."

As for safety, he says he hasn't seen any consensus from the scientific community, and he asks how people are supposed to report any effects from GMOs if they don't know they're eating them.

"I've spoken with a lot of people who are concerned we're becoming part of an unregulated feeding experiment at the hands of the biotech industry," he adds.

Conspiracy theories aside, HB 2462 isn't a comment on the safety of GE foods. But it is a bill that asks us to consider the costs and benefits of transparency.

Got a tip? Send it to: Miriam Wasser.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Miriam Wasser at @MiriamWasser.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser