ASPEN, Colo.—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he has been so impressed by Nestlé’s barcode labeling system that he believes putting information about genetically modified ingredients that way on food labels could resolve the issue of labeling foods that contain GMO ingredients.
In a wide-ranging discussion about U.S. food policy at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Vilsack also said that ending the use of antibiotics in meat production would lead to “astronomical” increases in meat prices, and discussed what the 2014 farm bill does for organic and local production.
Vilsack said that the “challenge” in the GMO labeling debate is that food labels have either provided people nutritional information about products or warned them about possible allergies. Labeling for GMOS does not fit into either of those categories, Vilsack said, “but the consumer has a right to know.”
He said Nestlé officials have shown him an “extended bar code,” which he believes consumers could read with their smartphones or on machines in grocery stores to determine whether a product contained genetically modified ingredients without sending any “misleading” messages.
The labeling proposals now being considered by some states, Vilsack said, will result in court cases that will cost millions in legal costs, but “five years from now we will be back at the festival talking about extended bar codes.”
“The use of bar codes as a vehicle for providing consumers with more information about the products they purchase is something worth exploring,” said a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes labeling of biotech foods, when asked about Vilsack’s comments.
“However, a federal GMO labeling standard would still be needed to prevent a 50 state patchwork of GMO labeling laws that would be both costly and confusing for consumers.”
A Nestlé spokeswoman said she had no response today to Vilsack's bar code statement, and a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Council said it has not taken an official position on barcoding.
Asked by The Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer, who moderated the discussion, whether barcodes would only work for higher income people with smartphones, Vilsack said that a larger and larger percentage of the population has smartphones, but that there could also be scanners in stores for all consumers could use.
Vilsack also noted that 660 studies have shown that foods with genetically modified ingredients do not cause health problems.
In answer to a question, Vilsack said he is making an effort to resolve conflicts among genetically modified, organic and conventional production, and that he has ordered studies on gene flow.
Organic producers would like reimbursement and compensation for losses due to genetic contamination, he noted, but added “at the very least” they should have a crop insurance program that provides protection.
“There is a great deal of activity taking place trying to bring people together,” Vilsack said. “I am looking for the common good. If it does not happen it is going to tear agriculture apart.”
More conflict could cause the United States to lose its competitiveness in agriculture, he noted.