WASHINGTON — The food industry, consumer groups and other stakeholders in the debate over how to label products containing genetically modified ingredients are expected to be summoned to the Agriculture Department early next month to try to resolve the contentious issue.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said there is growing urgency to reach a compromise with Vermont’s law that would require labels on foods that contain genetically modified organisms expected to take effect in July. If Vermont’s initiative withstands a legal challenge, proponents say it could give momentum to similar measures being considered in more than a dozen other states.
“I’m going to challenge them to get this thing fixed. I would like to avoid making food more expensive,” Vilsack said in an interview from his office overlooking the National Mall. He did not specify who would be invited to the meeting.
The former Iowa governor said he is concerned about “chaos in the market” if more states implement labeling laws with differing provisions. “That will cost the industry a substantial amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, and it will ultimately end up costing the consumer” through higher prices, Vilsack said.
The labeling argument has pitted consumer groups against major food and agribusiness companies. Both sides agree on the need for labeling of genetically engineered foods, but they have failed to agree on how, and on whether it should be mandatory or voluntary.
Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist, said it is promising that both sides are willing to talk but cautioned that a deal is unlikely to come together quickly.
“When you look at the gap between where the sides are it’s quite large,” said Hart. “Both sides want to keep this discussion going even though they are going to have a hard time finding common ground.”
As much as 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Biotech crops are popular in rural America, too, with more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans coming from the popular seeds.