OMG! GMOs are a challenge to packaging


By Sterling Anthony, CPP, Contributing Editor

Regardless of whether the epithet “Frankenfoods” is justified for edibles containing GMOs, the packaging-related issues might prove to be monstrous in size.

There is no federal mandate that foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) be labeled to that effect. Furthermore, in recent days the U.S. Senate voted against giving individual states that authority. The controversy isn’t going away, as advocates continue to push for GMO labeling. So once again, packaging is at the center of  an issue of sweeping importance. Typically within a company, Regulatory Affairs or the Legal Department takes the lead in assuring compliance with mandated labeling; however, that doesn’t relegate packaging professionals to only incorporating the mandates into the label graphics.  Rather than reacting to whatever mandates that materialize, packaging professionals should be proactive inside their own companies as well as outside (through membership organizations, for example), contributing to the formation of position statements. There’s no denying the legitimacy of the argument that people deserve to know what they are eating, empowering them to make informed purchases; nonetheless, any mandate regarding GMOs is best issued at the federal level.  Were the decision left to the states, companies either would have to print different labels for different states (woefully inefficient from a cost perspective) or devise a label so encompassing that it covers whatever differences there are among the states (woefully long and unwieldy).  

Individual states likely are reluctant to issue their own mandates, concerned that companies will bring suit, charging them with preempting federal law.  But why hasn’t the federal government mandated the labeling of GMO foods? It would be naïve to believe that the federal inaction has not been influenced by the lobbying of certain special interests; however, the publicly-given rationale defers to the FDA, saying that the agency’s position is that foods containing GMOs don’t pose a health hazard compared to their conventional counterparts.  That rationale doesn’t placate the proponents for labeling GMOs.  One reason is that the FDA routinely bases its decisions on research funded by the very entities that are petitioning for a favorable ruling from that agency.  There’s an often stated claim that people throughout this country have been eating GMOs for years, without evidence of harmful effects.  Then again, without labeling, how can that claim be convincingly substantiated?  People who are experiencing health problems but who unknowingly (because of a lack of labeling) have consumed GMOs can’t attribute the problems to the consumption—regardless of whether such attribution is accurate.

 Any nationally-spotlighted controversy about labeling has ramifications for packaging in general, beyond whatever industry (in this case, food) is at the forefront.  The Fair Labeling and Packaging Act is testament not only to the communication power of labeling and packaging but also to their susceptibility to misuse.  Even as consumers stand in store aisles or elsewhere studiously reading labeling, each of them likely can recount an instance of dissatisfaction about what’s there, or as the case may be, what’s not there.  Consumers have a right to be able to trust and rely on what’s being communicated; even so, they have a latent distrust of labeling, wary of sins of commission and omission.  That latent distrust can be brought to the surface by allegations of dishonest food labeling and then can be carried over to the labeling of other products.  After all, food is the largest product category that utilizes packaging and labeling and there’s no other category (including pharmaceuticals) that every person consumes daily.

Another way that the GMO controversy affects more than food packaging resides in the area of  sustainability, more specifically the crops that are being grown for conversion into packaging materials (for related reading, see Bio-feedstocks becoming flights of fancy?).  Manufacturers of PLA (polylactic acid) packaging made from corn containing GMOs have given assurances that the crop variety is being controlled from planting to conversion.  Those manufactures say that there is no risk of their varieties of corn mistakenly entering the food chain with varieties of corn meant for human consumption.  That needs to be true, for packaging’s sake; because packaging already is too much the sustainability scapegoat and doesn’t need anything else fostering that false image. And the concerns that can be expressed about corn apply equally to other crops used for making packaging, such as sugar cane and soybeans.  Incidentally, the bio-plastics industries have spoken of plans for improved sustainability through the use of agricultural waste in making packaging; however, if the crops themselves from which the waste is derived contain GMOs, the basic issues herein discussed remain.

Theoretically, crops containing GMOs likely are grown in accordance with agribusiness practices, replete with the use of fertilizers and pesticides.  Theoretically, then, wouldn’t a resulting concern be whether the packaging made from such crops might leach not only GMO elements but also residual fertilizers and pesticides?  It would seem that a challenge looms for migration testing methodologies that effectively address such possibilities.

The controversy over labeling of GMOs has caused some food companies to seek an advantage through labeling that claims that the product contains no GMOs.  If that’s a meaningful distinction to the targeted consumer, such claims make good business sense. But there are a multitude of “stealth” GMO ingredients and a company had better be able to defend its GMO-free product claims.  Intentional untruthfulness is an ethical issue, unintentional untruthfulness is a competence issue, and a company can be judged as harshly for the one as for the other.  

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- P.O. Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; ;