In the food business, everything comes down to that moment when a shopper studies a label and decides whether to buy or move on. That’s why food producers have a big interest in Washington’s Initiative 522 on the ballot next month.
It would require foods with genetically engineered ingredients to have a label on the front of the package. Supporters say consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. But some companies worry the law could dramatically change how their products are seen.
Tubs of veggie dip go three-by-three through a labeling machine on the production floor at Litehouse Foods in Sandpoint, Idaho. They pop out the other side with “Country Ranch” stickers stamped on the lid.
None of the elements on that label are there by accident says Kathy Weisz, the head of graphic design for Litehouse.
“We're trying to convey to the consumer what it might taste like," she says. "Kind of the feel of that product.”
Litehouse markets to “foodie” shoppers. The side of the label says “made fresh.” The company uses raw ingredients, without preservatives -- which is why the dressings are refrigerated.
Weisz says the label involves a constant dance between pictures of sliced tomatoes and sunflowers and the stuff on the label that has to be there legally -- like nutrition content, and ingredients.
So, Weisz says it's not that big of a deal to add one more thing to the label. “Label updates happen all the time."
When was the last one?
“Today, yesterday … it's always something,” says Weisz.
But the initiative before Washington voters would create a labeling rule that's a little bit different from others. The label saying “genetically engineered” or "partially produced with genetic engineering" would have to go on the front of the package and it would be specific to one state.
“I mean we already do sell to Canada and Mexico and that's difficult enough," says Weisz. "But starting to treat a state like a country – I would think that most manufacturers are just going to do it across the board, rather than making certain labels going to certain states or whatever.”
Meaning that people in Idaho and Oregon would be seeing the same thing as consumers in Washington.
That worries Paul Kusche, the senior vice president of Litehouse. He says the supply of non-genetically engineered canola and soybean oil just isn’t large enough to overhaul the company’s entire product line. If Initiative 522 passes, consumers will see labels on most of Litehouse’s products.
"I don’t know what the reaction is," Kusche says. "I really don’t.”
"Our right to know"
Research shows price, not labeling, is the most important factor for many shoppers. But companies like Litehouse cater to a particular crowd: the label readers -- people who are willing to pay more for a product they perceive as healthier.
Andie Forstad, who lives outside of Spokane, helped gather signatures to put the labeling initiative on the ballot. To her, it's about having information about her food – just like the calorie count on a box of cookies or whether her juice comes from concentrate.
“For transparency, for our right to know. So that we can make an informed decision," says Forstad . "I know people still buy genetically engineered products, but for those who wish not to, we can make that choice.”
Forstad cut genetically engineered foods out of her diet eight years ago. But she says it’s hard. In fact, as we're looking through her refrigerator, Forstad spies a bottle of raspberry syrup.
“Okay, so this one, most likely is genetically engineered," she says. “And I just noticed it in our fridge, but it hasn't been used! [I know] because it says sugar. Most sugars are sugar beet and sugar beet is genetically engineered. That shouldn’t be in our fridge.”
An unnecessary warning?
The problem, says Jim Cook, is that raspberry syrup may actually be identical to raspberry syrup considered GMO-free.
Cook is a retired plant pathologist from Washington State University. He's thrown his support behind the effort to defeat the measure.
“Sugar. You take a bag of sugar, you look on the label, and it says zero protein. And of course it's zero protein because it's pure sugar.”
Cook says the original sugar beet plant was genetically engineered to produce a certain protein.
“But that's the green plant," he explains. "And that protein's not in that sugar. Why would you put a label on sugar that says it's genetically engineered? Because it's not.”
Even if the initiative were written differently, Cook would still be concerned about what he considers a warning for food he says doesn't need one.
“How do you process that information?" he says. "What do you think when you see 'genetically engineered' on the label? Are you going to buy it anyway?”
Supply and demand
Back at Litehouse Foods, Paul Kusche is already looking beyond the November election. Litehouse has started sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients and has submitted 21 products for non-GMO certification.
Kusche says, the demand for foods that don't come from genetically engineered sources is undeniable.
“Whether it happens tomorrow or whether it happens 10 years from now, we know it's coming.”
And for now, at least he knows that if Washington does require Litehouse to label its products, they'll have lots and lots of company on grocery store shelves.
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