Food products made from common ingredients like soybeans may look and taste the same, but when their genetic code has been altered to make them more cost-efficient to grow, the food industry and activists are sharply divided.
That division is being made all the deeper by a bill that has been reintroduced this year, one that would require all genetically modified food in the state to be labeled as such.
"I think it’s very reasonable to know whether the food we are eating has been substantially altered genetically by the change of its chemical structure," said Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union).
"People should be able to choose whether they want to be part of the largest human experiment on Earth," she added.
The bill,/A-1359, has gained bipartisan cosponsors, who describe it a pro-consumer measure. It is also being supported by student activists.
But food industry advocates say that genetically modified food has proven safe and thatwould mislead consumers into thinking that it is unsafe or inferior and would prove costly to consumers and the state. Other business groups are concerned that it would lead to consumer-liability lawsuits.
Bill sponsor Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean) discounts the possibility that the measure will add costs to businesses or the government, noting that European countries already require labeling for food.
In genetically modified food, genetic material from organisms like bacteria is inserted into the DNA of plants and animals to add a specific trait, such as making them resistant to herbicides.
“If we use the European standards, it would be fine,” Singer said, likening the bill to previous measures to include ingredients or allergy information on food labels.
“This is almost like a cattle-prod approach, where if you start to see legislation moving, then I think you’re going to start seeing,” companies choosing to label their products, Singer said.
Singer said he would prefer that food companies choose to add the labels themselves, noting that it’s difficult to protect consumers, provide for choice, and weigh the potential economic cost of the law.
“Industry objects to any change in the norm,” Singer said, noting that food companies predicted dire financial consequences that never materialized from earlier requirements to add labels to food.
The bill has drawn the attention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a national group that represents companies that have developed genetically modified foods.
BIO spokeswoman Karen Batra noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association are among the groups that have found no reason to add labels to genetically modified food. She said consumers can already choose to buy foods that are labeled as organic -- and aren’t genetically modified -- under voluntary national guidelines.
The bill “would not only hurt New Jersey farmers, small business, and consumers, but also force New Jersey businesses to bear the expense of an unnecessary labeling program that will cause undue alarm and confusion for New Jersey consumers in the process,” said Batra.
The coalition opposed to the bill includes the New Jersey Farm Bureau, as well as state trade associations representing food processors, restaurants, retail merchants, biotechnology companies, and businesses seeking changes to liability laws.
Supporters of the bill recently submitted petitions to Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) asking him to support the bill. Sweeney will determine whether the measure receives a vote in the Senate.
Those gathering petitions include students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, who recently visited the Stop & Shop in the Somerset section of Franklin Township in Middlesex County.
Rutgers freshman Thea Popkin noted that there is wide public support for labeling, while senior Brian Franklin added that Connecticut and Maine became the first states to mandate labeling in 2013, while Whole Foods and other chains have begun to drop the GMO (genetically modified organisms).
“It’s smart business to give customers what they want, and customers want to know what’s in their food,” Franklin said.
Stender questioned whether the scientific consensus in favor of the safety of the modified food would hold up over time. She noted that most studies have been limited to the effect of the food over a 90-day period.
“This bill doesn’t speak to whether GMO is good, bad or indifferent, it just requires labeling,” she said.
Business advocates have also raised concerns about the potential for the bill to lead to lawsuits. New Jersey Civil Justice Institute President Marcus Rayner said the bill would make a failure to label a genetically modified food product a violation of the state’s consumer fraud laws.
“Our concern label is that this legislation could unintentionally create a litigation problem,” said Rayner, noting that it could lead to “lawyers arguing over the adequacy of a label.”