For years, anti-biotech groups have been pushing for foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients to be labeled. Last November, a labeling referendum in California, Proposition 37, was narrowly defeated at a high cost to its opponents. Oregon activists recently have garnered the required signatures to file a similar ballot initiative. There are labeling bills pending in as many as 20 states across the nation.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for food safety and labeling, has held a long-term policy that mandatory labeling is only necessary if there is a substantial difference in the food content e.g. nutrition or presence of potential allergens. Numerous studies have shown that GE foods are safe for consumption. However, this policy may be under reconsideration according to a Feb. 11 article in Pesticide & Chemical Policy which reports that on Jan. 11, FDA officials met with labeling advocates and seemed receptive to a preemptive federal GE labeling law. Some 20 major companies, including Wal-Mart, PepsiCo and ConAgra, reportedly attended the session, which was convened by the Meridian Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that brings stakeholders together to discuss policy issues.

Last year, Wal-Mart was criticized by consumer advocates for selling GE sweet corn in its stores. If Wal-Mart moves to require GE labeling, it would significantly impact the food industry.

Proponents of labeling base their argument on the consumers’ “right to know.” Food labeling opponents believe that these same groups will use the label as a warning sign to frighten buyers who know little about the technology, according to numerous surveys.