Local legislation, national impact

Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 12:06 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:08 p.m. CST

I have long been a big fan of food labels, reading about what things are in the food I eat, not for medical or nutritional reasons, but simply out of curiosity. Some labels inform about what the product contains – “100 percent organic;” others announce what is not in the item – “contains no nuts.” Each company may make the decision, following the guidelines established by federal law, what the consumer is told of the product they are purchasing. That decision is a business decision, but one firmly driven by what consumers want to know about a product they purchase.

So, given my attachment to food labels, I was interested when I received a letter from a state commodity group I belong to. The letter alerted me to legislation, introduced into the Illinois Senate, which mandates “any food offered for retail sale in this state is misbranded if it is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering, and that fact is not disclosed in a certain manner.” The legislation continues for 12 pages and contains, among other things, a legal definition of “enzyme” and classifies “chewing gum” as a food.

The proposed law contains a long legal description of the “genetic engineering” of food, more commonly called “genetically modified” (GM) food. The legislation is an attempt to inform consumers of the presence, or absence, of GM ingredients in the food they purchase. This information would be placed on the product label and easily read by interested consumers, such as myself.

This bill, if it becomes law, could have a serious impact on Illinois consumers. Since the law would apply only to food products sold in Illinois, the state’s multibillion dollar food processing industry could continue to hum along, selling the foods produced everywhere but Illinois. The idea of a clandestine road trip to a neighboring state to purchase soup or ketchup produced in, but not sold in, Illinois is intriguing. I recall road trips, many years ago, to purchase Coors beer in Colorado, before it was distributed nationally.

Food companies currently are free to voluntarily provide the labeling information the proposed law mandates. However, according to the draft legislation, “only a small portion of the food industry participates in voluntary labeling.” The question, unanswered by those supporting the bill, is why food processors are not voluntarily providing the information that would be required by the new law. Perhaps the price of food would increase as monitoring costs increase, or perhaps the need to alert consumers to the presence of GM ingredients in food products isn’t as important as the legislators believe – maybe consumers don’t care.    

I will follow the path of Senate Bill 1666 as it grinds its way through the legislative process in Springfield. Who knows, I may soon need to travel to Keokuk to purchase my favorite peanut butter which is unavailable here in Macomb because it is not properly labeled.

Professor William C. Bailey formerly was the chief economist for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition. He also has served as Deputy-Under Secretary of Agriculture. He is now employed by the school of agriculture in Macomb.

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