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If a cow eats genetically modified feed, should its milk be labeled as GMO?

Courtesy of Warren Taylor

When you walk through the supermarket, you might see food labeled organic or fair trade. Now, some food companies are also starting to identify genetically modified ingredients. A lawis set to take effect this summer in Vermont that would mandate GMO labels. Large food manufacturers have been lobbying Congress to stop it. But one milk producer in our region doesn’t think the Vermont law goes far enough.

Protecting a niche business

Warren Taylor grew up in a dairy family. He and his wife own Snowville Creamery in rural southern Ohio. They sell their milk and yogurt to Whole Foods and other stores.

Taylor gets his milk from nearby dairy farms. Cows on most U.S. farms eat feed from genetically engineered crops, like Roundup Ready corn. Not the ones that supply Taylor.

“Our cows are all fed only non-GMO feed. All the feed that they eat, every load has been tested with very sophisticated equipment to confirm it’s non-GMO,” he says.

Taylor’s worried he’s going to lose the niche he’s created, selling regional, GMO-free milk products.

He says big dairies are labeling their products as non-GMO even though their milk comes from cows that eat genetically modified food.  In fact, a woman in California is suing Chipotle because it advertises a GMO- free menu, while serving meat, cheese and sour cream from animals that eat GMO corn and soy.

Taylor wants to have "a federal law that’s clear and honest and not meant to prejudice in favor of genetic engineering."

National debate over mandatory labels

He’s been spending a lot of time in Washington to lobby for GMO labeling. Big food and grocery organizations are pushing Congress to act quickly for a national law before Vermont’s law goes into effect. But a bill to create a national labeling system failed to pass the Senate last month. It would have made labels voluntary. Taylor cheered when it didn’t pass.

“I think voluntary labeling, it’s a dodge. It’s dishonest. It means no labeling at all," he says.

For Taylor’s business, the heart of this debate comes back to whether milk from cows that eat genetically modified feed should be considered genetically modified itself.

Vermont’s law exempts milk, eggs and meat from GMO labeling.

Dave Carlin is a vice president at the International Dairy Foods Association. His group represents big dairies, like Borden and Dannon.

“Just because you feed a cow GM feed it does not make the milk that comes from that cow GM," he says. "Just as if we fed a cow chocolate, it doesn’t make the milk that comes out of that cow chocolate milk. It just doesn’t work that way.”

The Food and Drug Administration agrees. In an email, the FDA says when cows eat GMO feed it doesn’t make the milk GMO. The milk itself is not genetically engineered.

So for now, the issue comes down to informing consumers about ingredients that are directly genetically engineered, like GMO soy and corn.

Some companies, like Campbell’s soup and General Mills, have already started identifying genetically engineered ingredients on their labels.

Surveys show a majority of Americans support GMO labeling. But the food industry says mandating labels would be like a scarlet letter -- an unnecessary warning to consumers.

Chris Miller is the social activism manager with ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s. The company advocates for GMO labeling.

“This is not a warning label, this is not about safety. This is about transparency, and consumers understanding what they buy. It’s that simple," says Miller.

But even Ben and Jerry’s uses milk from cows that eat GMO feed, without labeling it as such.

Now that the Senate has killed the voluntary labeling bill, Democratic senators have proposed another bill and say they’ve been trying to negotiate a bipartisan solution.


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