Getting Help that Truly Helps

A Letter from the President and CEO
Leslie G. Sarasin
"Bottom line, there remains much work to be done to educate our customers and eradicate consumer confusion and concern about GMOs."

Children's author and songwriter, Shel Silverstein, once penned the rather clever lyric, "some kind of help is the kind of help that helping's all about and some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without." In an economy of words, Silverstein captures the universal experience of sometimes being offered help that truly does advance a cause and provides assistance. That is what helping‘s all about. But Silverstein also conveys the shadow side of being given help that proves to be anything but helpful because the so-called helpful action actually distracts, delays, complicates or thwarts progress. That is the kind of help we all can do without.

Without a doubt, the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the process of genetic engineering is one of the more complex and complicated issues confronting the food world today. It is complex because an accurate understanding of it requires a degree of scientific sophistication and technological expertise most of us find elusive and taxing, and requiring work to comprehend. The GMO topic is further complicated because its technical vocabulary can quickly start to sound like a script from a bad science fiction movie, and that can be a bit scary. Unfortunately, some have preferred to focus their efforts on fueling the fear rather than upping the understanding. Bottom line, there remains much work to be done to educate our customers and eradicate consumer confusion and concern about GMOs.

FMI research reveals that a strong majority of consumers want to be given information about whether the food products on the shelves of supermarkets contain ingredients derived from sources that have undergone some sort of genetic engineering. Our research also shows that receiving GMO information will not affect the purchase behavior of most consumers because they neither seek GMO's nor do they avoid them. That fact, however, does not change their preference for being able to access the information. Regarding what they actually buy, the information may not matter, but when it comes to having ready access to information about their food, it does matter. For those 25 percent of consumers for whom the information would guide their purchase decisions, the question centers on the type of help that would truly be helpful.

Leslie Sarasin participates in a March 2 fly-in on Capitol Hill with senior grocery executives on the subject of GMO legislation. Photo courtesy of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

FMI has advocated and will continue to advocate for establishing national standards and vocabulary regarding GMOs. All communicators know that a common language and agreed-to terminology is the crucial first step toward enhanced understanding. That would constitute help that truly helps. If a national definition isn't created, we face a situation in which a handful of states and non-governmental entities establish their own GMO labeling standards and create their own sets of definitions. These differing definitions — in varying stages of implementation — will create a cacophony of conflicting words and voices that will surely deepen consumer confusion about an already complicated subject. The state authorities may believe they are helping, but in reality, their "assistance" will impede progress. Furthermore, a state-by-state patchwork of GMO labeling regulations will cripple interstate commerce of food products distributed throughout the U.S., result in unnecessary (re)labeling and logistics expenses and ultimately lead to higher food costs. That is not what helping's all about.

FMI is proud to support legislation recently put forward by U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a uniform national food labeling standard for genetically engineered ingredients. This bill received bipartisan support when being reviewed by the Agriculture Committee and would make it easier for the food industry to voluntarily disclose information about GMO food in a single, consistent way, clarity that food retailers have sought. It also creates a consumer education initiative addressing the safety of GMO products, which is needed to enhance consumer understanding of GMOs. The food industry faces a July 1 implementation deadline for the state of Vermont's mandatory labeling law. To avoid the unnecessary confusion, cost and complications that implementation of Vermont's law would create, it is imperative that the full Senate approve chairman Roberts' National Biotechnology Labeling Solutions legislation as soon as possible (the Agriculture Committee passed it March 1, by a vote of 14 to 6) and for the bill to be voted on by the House of Representatives and sent expeditiously to the President for his signature.

Food retailers want to provide their customers with the food options they want, the information they need and the help that truly helps them make their product choices. Approval of Chairman Roberts' labeling bill would give food retailers the kind of help that helping's all about.