Labeling of genetically modified foods is expected to be an issue this week as diplomats from the United States and European Union meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss a new trans-Atlantic trade deal.
But the issue also has become a flash point here in New Jersey.
The European Union closely regulates the importing of genetically modified foods, while in the United States, labeling of such products is generally voluntary.
Now, New Jersey lawmakers are pushing a bill to require labeling of any food sold containing genetically modified organisms. The bill is promoted as a means to enable consumer choice, but opponents say it creates an impression that GMO foods are inferior or unhealthy.
"We support voluntary labeling, which you're already seeing," said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture won't allow GMO foods to be labeled "organic." Thus, he said, consumers already have a sure-fire way to avoid GMO foods, by looking for USDA-certified organics. He thinks the bill is about more than labeling.
"The proponents of this initiative really want to ban GMO in its entirety," he said.
The bill, A-3192, has passed the Assembly Budget Committee, but has yet to come up for a vote in the full Assembly, and has yet to see action in the state Senate.
Holub said there's no solid evidence that GMO foods are harmful, and notes that the American Medical Association, among other groups, has said there's no scientific reason to justify labeling at this time.
"A government-mandated label has the very distinct possibility of confusing consumers," he said.
Still, in a press release issued following the Budget Committee vote last month, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) said consumers are becoming savvier about their purchases.
"The science of genetically modified products is not without controversy," she said. "It is in the consumers' best interest to be made aware of whether this growing technique was used in an item they might purchase. There is no such thing as having too much information."
Last month, Connecticut became the first state to require labeling of GMO foods, but the law won't go into effect until at least four other states, including one bordering Connecticut, pass a similar requirement.
Holub's group isn't alone in opposing the measure. The New Jersey Farm Bureau, New Jersey Restaurant Association, BioNJ and the New Jersey Food Processors Association all oppose the measure, among others.
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the restaurant association, said it's "almost impossible" for restaurants to label every menu item, including daily specials, to note whether any ingredient in the dish was genetically modified.
The bill is so broadly written, she said, that "it will create a significant expense and labor for restaurants in the state, and it does nothing to further the public good," she said.
Reporter Jared Kaltwasser is @JaredKaltwasser on Twitter.