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Going with flow can pay off big for industry of GM

Tiny Vermont is on the verge of giving Big Food a huge headache.

Late last month, the Vermont legislature passed a law requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. The governor has promised to sign the bill this week.

Vermont, of course, doesn’t matter much on its own. The real concern is that other states – about a quarter of which have some kind of GM-labeling legislation or ballot initiative in the works – may follow Vermont’s lead. This could prove intolerable to the food industry.

Here’s why: Different product labels would be needed for states that require labeling and for those that don’t. States that require labels might also require certain terms or specify their placement. Such a legal patchwork would be cumbersome, not to mention costly.

At least some of those pressing for state labeling laws wouldn’t mind that. Many of them are aligned with and financed by organic-food producers, who stand to benefit if some consumers shun GM products.

Vermont’s law would take effect in 2016.

Something like 70 percent of all food produced in the United States contains GM ingredients. The percentage is even higher for corn, used for everything from sweetening soft drinks to feeding cattle.

The Food and Drug Administration has stood on the sidelines for years. The agency only requires labeling when it determines that a food is substantively different, and so far the evidence is that GM foods are indistinguishable from other foods.

Of course, this dispute probably could be ended if President Barack Obama followed through on a 2007 campaign pledge to order labeling. Or if the food industry acknowledged the growing interest consumers have in understanding what they consume. An overwhelming majority of Americans tell pollsters they want GM labeling.

It is understandable that the industry resists labeling because of the success GM foes have had in stigmatizing both GM products and science in general. Never mind that almost everything in the modern diet has been altered in some way, either through hybridization or exposure to toxins and agents such as radiation.

The food makers risk losing this fight if other states follow Vermont’s lead, which seems inevitable.

So what should the industry do? First, get behind a national labeling standard; the worst thing for the industry is the hodgepodge now taking shape. Then reconsider the spending. The industry has pumped many millions of dollars into labeling battles and seems destined to spend much more. Why not do something useful with the money instead, like educating consumers on the improvements science has made to our food supply, or helping to ward off hunger?

Those are battles worth winning.

James Greiff wrote this for Bloomberg News.