Friday, May 3, 2013

GMOs: Labeling in Action

Although few Americans are aware of it, there is already some labeling policy in place for genetically engineered foods. The International Federation for Produce Standards, a conglomeration of produce associations from around the world, is responsible for creating a specific code tacked on to each and every produce item you purchase at the grocery store known as a Price Look Up number, or PLU for short.

The PLU, found on a sticker attached to each piece of produce found at the super market, is a typically a 4- or 5-digit code that is responsible for identifying several different attributes such as the type of produce (e.g. apple), the variety (e.g. Fiji), and the growing methods (e.g. genetically engineered), and the size (e.g. large). For a comprehensive explanation describing how PLU codes get assigned, see the IFPS’ PLU User’s Guide.

Although the need for PLU codes is in many ways reflective of the problems that big agri-business creates for our food system, there is some good news. If your 5-digit PLU code on a produce item that begins with a “9” then you can be assured (at least as far as you can trust labeling laws) that you’re buying organic. In addition, if your 5-digit PLU code begins with an “8” you can be assured that you are purchasing a product which has been genetically engineered.

This means that there are two ways to avoid purchasing GE produce: buy items with a PLU beginning with “9” or avoid items with a PLU beginning with “8.”

What about I-522, then?

While the knowledge of whether your fresh produce was grown organically, with dangerous pesticides, or even with harmful genetic engineering is invaluable, it’s a rare occasion that your food basket is filled to its entirety from the produce section. The plethora of processed foods, from miso paste all the way to soft drinks, that appeal to most American shoppers are left unlabeled, meaning that we as consumers have very little means of finding out what it is that we are buying.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a labeling system for food products that contain organic ingredients. In order to display the USDA Organic Seal on a food package, the producer must be able to demonstrate that a minimum of 95% of the ingredients used were grown according to the organic standards provided by the USDA. Put in other words, even food products with the highest level of certification may contain up to 5% genetically engineered ingredients.

When the health of your own being, your loved ones, and the environment are at risk, 5% uncertainty simply won’t do. As a consumer, in order to make an informed decision you must have access to all the relevant information, and that means knowing how your food was grown.

If I-522 passes this Fall, consumers will be provided this very opportunity. Any food products containing genetically engineered ingredients sold in Washington State will be required to disclose this information, allowing consumers the opportunity to make informed decisions free from deception.

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