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Vilsack: Barcode labeling could end GMO debate; ending antibiotic use in meat production would raise prices

2014_0626_Vilsack_Aspen Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, left, vice president of the Aspen Institute, joins Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss U.S. food policy with Corby Kummer, right, senior editor at The Atlantic. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

ASPEN, Colo. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he has been so impressed by Nestlé’s barcode labeling system that he believes putting information about genetically modified ingredients that way on food labels could resolve the issue of labeling foods that contain GMO ingredients.

Tom Vilsack
Tom Vilsack
In a wide-ranging discussion about U.S. food policy at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Vilsack also said that ending the use of antibiotics in meat production would lead to “astronomical” increases in meat prices, and discussed what the 2014 farm bill does for organic and local production.

Vilsack said that the “challenge” in the GMO labeling debate is that food labels have either provided people nutritional information about products or warned them about possible allergies. Labeling for GMOS does not fit into either of those categories, Vilsack said, “but the consumer has a right to know.”

He said Nestlé officials have shown him an “extended bar code,” which he believes consumers could read with their smartphones or on machines in grocery stores to determine whether a product contained genetically modified ingredients without sending any “misleading” messages.

The labeling proposals now being considered by some states, Vilsack said, will result in court cases that will cost millions in legal costs, but “five years from now we will be back at the festival talking about extended bar codes.”

“The use of bar codes as a vehicle for providing consumers with more information about the products they purchase is something worth exploring,” said a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes labeling of biotech foods, when asked about Vilsack’s comments.

“However, a federal GMO labeling standard would still be needed to prevent a 50 state patchwork of GMO labeling laws that would be both costly and confusing for consumers.”

A Nestlé spokeswoman said she had no response today to Vilsack's bar code statement, and a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Council said it has not taken an official position on barcoding.

Asked by The Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer, who moderated the discussion, whether barcodes would only work for higher income people with smartphones, Vilsack said that a larger and larger percentage of the population has smartphones, but that there could also be scanners in stores for all consumers could use.

Vilsack also noted that 660 studies have shown that foods with genetically modified ingredients do not cause health problems.

In answer to a question, Vilsack said he is making an effort to resolve conflicts among genetically modified, organic,and conventional production, and that he has ordered studies on gene flow.

Organic producers would like reimbursement and compensation for losses due to genetic contamination, he noted, but added “at the very least” they should have a crop insurance program that provides protection.

“There is a great deal of activity taking place trying to bring people together,” Vilsack said. “I am looking for the common good. If it does not happen it is going to tear agriculture apart.”

More conflict could cause the United States to lose its competitiveness in agriculture, he noted.

New support of fruit, vegetable producers

Vilsack also said the new farm bill is providing unprecedented levels of support for fruit and vegetable producers including microloans for small producers, research, an increase in specialty crop block grants, the farm-to-school program, food hubs, more support for conservation and and more help in the transition from conventional to organic production.

USDA has also built more than 13,000 “tunnel houses” to extend the production season, made it possible for food stamp beneficiaries to use their electronic benefit cards at about half the nation’s 8,400 farmers’ markets, and signed organic equivalency agreements with foreign countries to increase exports, he said.

Vilsack also noted that 20,000 USDA employees have taken a basic course in organic production so that organics can be integrated into USDA’s programs, and that 8,000 employees have taken a more advanced course.

The question of antibiotics

During the question and answer session, Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg said that one of the “severe” problems in the country is human resistance to antimicrobial drugs.

(Although the term “antibiotic resistance” is usually used in this discussion in Washington, Fineberg used the term “antimicrobial,” which the Centers for Disease Control says means antibiotics and similar drugs.)
Harvey Fineberg
Harvey Fineberg
Fineberg proposed that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service use its labeling authority so that consumers who prefer antimicrobial-free meats could find it, and asked “what would be the disruption” if antimicrobial drugs were banned completely in animal use.

Vilsack replied that the increase in the cost of foods would be “astronomical.”

Fineberg countered that the system has changed in Europe and that meat prices have not soared, but Vilsack said meat prices are higher in Europe.

The secretary acknowledged the antimicrobial problem, but said he believes that the “way to do this” is the current approach to end the use of antibiotics for growth purposes, but continue it to fight disease under the guidance of a veterinarian.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who also participated in the discussion, noted that he had been on the Pew Commission on Industrial Agriculture and concluded that the resistance problem is not just animal use but overuse in humans. Glickman said he agreed with Vilsack’s approach.

In an interview afterward, Fineberg told The Hagstrom Report that he believes antimicrobial drugs should be used to treat sick animals, but that he fears some veterinarians may prescribe the drugs too frequently and that therefore people should be able to find meat from animals on which the drugs have never been used.