August 4, 2013

What do Mainers hunger for? More product details

It's a no-brainer, right? Just tell us what's in our food and where our clothes are made. But some manufacturers say: Not so fast.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Product labeling

How much do you care about “consumer transparency” in product labeling?

A lot

Somewhat

Not very much

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20130724_FoodLabels
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Hannah Brilliant, left, answers questions about her produce from Limington resident Michelle Twomey at the farmers market in Monument Square last month. Brilliant, who runs an organic vegetable farm in Pittsfield, says she is fielding many more questions from consumers this year about genetically modified organisms.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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A label inside a cardigan sweater sold by a U.S. retailer informs consumers that the garment was made in Bangladesh.

Amelia Kunhardt/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The current debate over labeling of genetically modified foods has reached nearly 30 states, including Maine, but it has yet to spur a federal law. It is also being aggressively challenged.

In November, voters in California rejected a ballot initiative similar to the bill that just passed in Maine. Food and chemical giants, led by Monsanto and DuPont, spent more than $46 million to defeat it, compared to about $9 million spent by supporters. The companies persuaded voters to reject the bill by arguing that it was deceptive, overly bureaucratic and full of special interest exemptions.

The spending was not nearly that high in Maine, but those same companies lobbying against labeling bills also outspent supporters of the bills here. Companies have also threatened to sue states that enact food labeling laws. The industry says labeling misleads consumers into believing that foods with bioengineered ingredients are less safe or less healthy than other foods.

Robert Tardy of Palmyra, a former Democratic lawmaker and a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Association, which represents companies like Monsanto, contends that the motive behind the GMO-labeling bill is not transparency.

"It's a coordinated effort to boost sales of organic products," he said.

But Heather Spalding, interim executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, said people's interest in what's in their food and other products is a good thing. It's about choice.

"There is a growing awareness about the many untested and unregulated chemicals and ingredients that are in so many everyday products," she said. "But the approach needs to be less fear-mongering and more pushing for safe alternatives. And there are safer alternatives."

Today, the transparency debate is centered on GMOs, but product labeling has been around for a long time. What has increased is the amount of information available.

Among the first legislative actions to give people more information about what they were buying was the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1965, which required that all consumer products involved in interstate commerce be "honestly and informatively labeled."

In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which said all packaged food must have basic nutritional information listed.

In 2004, a federal law was passed to aid consumers suffering from severe allergies. Now all products that contain peanuts, soybeans, cow's milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts or wheat must be labeled accordingly.

In 2008, after six years of legal challenges, a federal provision was passed that requires retailers to provide country of origin labels for beef, pork and lamb.

Long before federal regulations are passed, these types of debates usually start at the state level.

WHAT'S IN A LABEL

There is a risk in going too far, according to Mark Heidmann, who owns Maple Springs Farm in Harrison. He said people want to trust certain labels, but don't always know what the label actually means.

"I don't think people have an understanding of what 'genetically modified' means, but they know they don't like it," he said.

Heidmann, for instance, is not a certified organic farmer, but he said his growing practices are just as natural as those used by other farmers. And he's happy to explain his process to customers, if they are willing to listen. But some just look for the organic label and if it's not there, they move on.

There is also a gap between interest and action in consumption, according to Eric Whan, sustainability director at GlobeScan, a public opinion research firm that conducted a recent study of consumer habits. The study found that 86 percent of consumers worldwide say transparency in food ingredients is important, but only 57 percent regularly check the list of ingredients before purchasing.

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Additional Photos

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Mark Heidmann, who owns Maple Springs Farm in Harrison, says: “I don’t think people have an understanding of what ‘genetically modified’ means, but they know they don’t like it.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Barbara Gulino of Whole Foods in Portland holds some of the hundreds of products with labels indicating they’re non-genetically modified, certified organic or locally produced.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Prominent labels indicate that these bunches of cilantro from Freedom Farm are certified organic, something many produce shoppers desire.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer



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Today's poll: Product labeling

How much do you care about “consumer transparency” in product labeling?

A lot

Somewhat

Not very much

View Results