Update 2:35 p.m., Oct. 3, 2014: This story has been updated to include comment from the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.
GMO labeling is one of the hottest issues in the food industry today -- and a new study won't end the debate about what consumers need to know about genetically modified organisms. The study's estimate that the annual cost of implementing a national labeling regime would be less than $2.50 per person has been presented as a win for the pro-labeling crowd, but the estimate is not as clear-cut as it may seem.
Big Food companies often argue that GMO labeling would cost too much money to implement, resulting in losses for them and their shareholders, and higher food costs for consumers. But a new study conducted by ECONorthwest on behalf of the Consumers Union -- the policy and advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports -- estimates that it would cost only an estimated $2.30 per year per person.
"That's less than a penny a day for each consumer," Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said, according to the Oregonian of Portland. "A tiny fraction of the cost estimates put out by industry and certainly a very small price to pay for consumers' right to know if their food has been genetically engineered."
Genetic engineering critics and food safety advocates praised the study, saying it demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of GMO labeling.
“It would amount to less than the cost of a gallon of milk,” Rebecca Spector, the West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, said in an emailed statement. “We are pleased that a fair, independent study was published to finally show that GE food labeling essentially adds no cost to consumers.”
But anti-labeling advocates, including the industry and consumer group Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CSAF), have criticized the study as potentially misleading.
"Oregonians know better than to fall for a subjective, flawed study that was bought and paid for by the very activists who are advocating for an unneeded policy change that will drive up food costs for families," CSAF spokeswoman Claire Parker said in a statement.
"Multiple authoritative studies have demonstrated that mandatory labeling would raise grocery bills for families by hundreds of dollars per year. Critically, this new study only looked at label costs- just one minor element of the supply chain process- and failed to include costs to farming, shipping, inventory and production that would ultimately be passed on to consumers."
And the report actually suggests that putting a price on GMO labeling may not be that simple. The method used to determine the $2.30 estimate was calculated by taking a median of a number of estimates provided by different models. The true cost could be far higher -- or far lower.
“Relevant cost estimates presented in the studies we reviewed ranged from $.32 to $15.01,” the summary states.
Either way, GMOs remain a hot-button issue, even emerging as a key topic in political campaigns from Hawaii to Iowa.
State governments across the nation are considering labeling and other measures aimed at addressing concerns about genetically engineered foods; earlier this year Vermont became the first state to mandate that companies label products containing GMO ingredients, beginning in 2016.
At the same time, a series of states have rejected similar proposals, bolstering the arguments of GMO proponents and industry groups alike.