WASHINGTON — Some of the country’s most popular chefs traded in serving food for serving sound bites in Washington on Tuesday.
Instead of their restaurants, the backdrop was Capitol Hill, where the culinary artists are hoping their support will add momentum to a push that would require labels to be placed on salad dressings, soups, cereals and other grocery store staples made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Food and agribusiness companies, including Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer unit in Johnston,oppose that effort, contending that labeling would besmirch safe food and should not be required.
In the United States, up to 80 percent of packaged foods contains ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies, including Kellogg, PepsiCo and H.J. Heinz.
More than 700 chefs signed a petition delivered to lawmakers Tuesday encouraging them to support legislation fromSen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would require labeling. The chefs echoed a message long used by labeling supporters who say that adding the information to genetically modified foods would boost transparency for consumers who have a right to know what’s in the things they eat.
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“What we are asking here as Americans, as chefs, is we want to know what we are buying,” said Jose Andres, an acclaimed chef with restaurants in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and other cities. “We’re the professionals, but we are in the dark. Give us the power to know so we can pass this on to our people.”
Pro-labeling advocates say U.S. shoppers should be given the same opportunity that consumers in more than 60 countries have to know if the foods they buy contain those ingredients. They also have expressed uncertainty about the safety of genetically modified ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration has said there is no difference between genetically modified crops and their traditional counterparts.
The United States is by far the world’s largest grower of biotech crops, planting 173 million acres in 2013 — almost 40 percent of all biotech acreage globally. The lion’s share of corn and soybeans grown in the United States comes from genetically modified seed, so any effort to label products would have widespread impact. Iowa is the country’s biggest corn and second-biggest soybean producer.
“We’re not asking for a skull and crossbones. We’re not asking for a label on the front that says danger,” said Tom Colicchio, a judge on the reality TV show “Top Chef” and founder of restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. “If things are dangerous in our food system, we take them off the market. We are not asking them to take GMOs off the market.”
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said in a call with reporters that any labeling must happen only if the science shows it’s necessary, something he said has not been done.
“Labeling things GMO when we’ve had three governmental agencies one way or another weighing in on certain aspects of agriculture that what we’re doing now is safe, I’m not sure what you’ll accomplish except confusing consumers,” Grassley said.
Food producers have embraced a federal solution banning required labeling to prevent an uneven patchwork of labeling requirements that vary from state to state, increasing costs for food manufacturers that are passed on to shoppers. Any labels, they say, should be voluntary because a mandatory system implies that the foods are in some way less safe.
Food and agribusiness companies have thrown their weight behind a bill from Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would ban mandatory GMO food labeling by states and let food companies decide if they want to label their packages as genetically modified.
“We understand that just like those who consume food, those who cook it have questions about its origin,” said Caitlin Kennedy, a spokeswoman with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents companies that produce genetically modified seeds. “We agree with the chefs about the ability to know what you’re eating and have taken huge strides to ensure transparency, but mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms is not the solution.”
The debate over whether foods containing these ingredients should be labeled has intensified in recent years as states have asked voters to approve ballot initiatives — a move that has had mixed success.
In May, Vermont became the first state to require labeling, but the measure is being challenged in court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other groups. Similar ballot measures in Colorado, Washington and California have failed, and an initiative in Oregon is heading to a recount after voters narrowly rejected it in November.
Colicchio, Andres and other chefs said Tuesday that while the labeling movement is still loosely organized, especially among chefs, they’re optimistic it’s gaining momentum.
“This movement, if anything, is only going to increase,” Andres said. “More and more, we’re going to be voting with our plate, and in the years to come we’re going to see that the food and the food we’re going to be feeding our children is going to be part of the political” discussion.
Christopher Doering at email@example.com or reach him at Twitter: @cdoering.