Celebrity Chefs Turn Heat Up On Mandatory GMO Labels

tom ColicchioMore than a dozen “celebrity” chefs met with Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., on Capitol Hill this past Tuesday to promote a federal mandate for GMO labeling.

At a press conference, the chefs unveiled a petition organized by Tom Colicchio, celebrity chef owner of the iconic Craft restaurant and head judge of the reality television show “Top Chef,” in which they and 700 colleagues ask Congress to advance legislation sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would require FDA to require labels for food products made with genetically engineered ingredients.

“We’re not here to demonize science or scientists,” Colicchio said at the event. “This is not to demonize an industry…just to give people clear information.”

However, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which consists of 37 trade groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says the costs of mandatory GMO labeling would go beyond the price of just printing the label, and that consumers would absorb the cost of supply chain changes.

Safeway estimates that its initial costs would amount to over $15 million “to identify, confirm and certify its Private Brand products that contain GMOs,” according to the Coalition. In addition, the company said it would have to establish and maintain “a costly supplier audit and certification program.”

The coalition supports a federal labeling bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that creates a federal standard for voluntary labeling of genetically modified foods. The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans a hearing on the bill on Dec. 10.

The chefs said customers at their restaurants-who can expect to pay at least $30 per meal-care about organic and local foods. However, buying organic ingredients is not enough to make them feel confident, the chefs say, because they do not know whether processed or other ingredients they use are derived from GMOs.

Chef José Andrés, who has restaurants in Washington, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, South Beach, Florida, and in Puerto Rico, said his customers – he says they number in the “millions” a year – want to know if the ingredients he uses are GMO or not. Andrés said if he knew that certain products contained ingredients developed from genetically engineered crops, he would not use them. “Transparency is all we are asking for,” he said.

The petition states: “As chefs, we know that choosing the right ingredients is an absolutely critical part of cooking. But when it comes to whether our ingredients contain genetically modified organisms, we’re in the dark.”

Colicchio contends that mandated labels are necessary because consumers are confused about the food at the grocery store and do not realize that while very few vegetables and fruits are genetically engineered, a majority of processed foods are made with GE corn or soybeans. He also said that mandating a label should not raise the price of food, because manufactures “change their labels all the time,” like Wheaties boxes that feature different athletes.

Pompeo’s bill would require that all new foods containing GMO ingredients being brought to the market must first undergo a review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It would preempt any mandatory state labeling law, because foods would not need to be labeled if they are deemed safe by FDA.

During the press conference, Andrés said the coalition of chefs, activists and organic farmers in support of mandatory GMO labeling is “only going to increase.” Food Policy Action, Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety and Just Label It joined the chefs on Tuesday for meetings with lawmakers.

Besides Colicchio and Andrés, the following chefs participated in Tuesday’s event: Art Smith, Sam Talbot, Morgan L’Esperance, Kyle Bailey, Danielle Vogel, Brad Race, Travis Olson, Alex Young, Cathal Armstrong, Luke Zahm, Scott Drewno, William Dissen, Michel Nischan, Andrea Reusing, Hugh Acheson, Jamie Leeds, Brian Johnson, Micheline Mendelsohn, Blake Backman and Cathy Whims.

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Christopher Durham
Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.