- - Monday, May 26, 2014

I have a big family — and between me, my kids and my grandkids, we’re spread out across America. We live in Florida, California, Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. We’re constantly traveling back and forth.

As we visit each other, we’re also preparing and sharing meals. Sometimes it feels like I spend much of my time making trips to grocery stores.

Should food labels look different everywhere we go? Of course not. Americans need easy to read and understand standards that reveal pertinent information, no matter where we buy our food.

I’m a label reader. When my grandchildren are grocery shopping with me, they often ask, “Why are you reading the label” or “what does this label mean”? I depend on accurate and reliable labels for nutritional information and assume that labeled food products are safe and in compliance with FDA standards. I don’t want labels to push me or my family away from safe and healthy food.

Unfortunately, a step in the wrong direction was taken this month when Vermont became the first state in the country to demand special labeling on food packages that contain genetically modified ingredients. Signed into law by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the rules are due to take effect in two years.

If other states decide to go down that path, now we’re on the verge of a confusing and dysfunctional food-labeling system, with 50 sets of rules in our 50 states. That’s 49 too many.

The food labels already approved by the Food and Drug Administration are pretty good. Soon they may become even better. In February, the FDA announced plans to fine-tune them.

The last thing we need are a bunch of legislators striking out on their own, thinking they can fix a system that isn’t broken.

Patchwork looks good on a quilt, but it doesn’t make sense for a regulatory regime. When it comes to food labels, we should expect consistency across state lines. My grandchildren in Houston should be able to understand food labels when they go to my local grocery store near Tampa Bay in Florida. Their shopping experience should not demand proficiency in decipherment.

At a recent White House event, first lady Michelle Obama described the problem of poorly conceived food labels: “So you marched into the supermarket, you picked up a can or a box of something, you squinted at that little tiny label, and you were totally and utterly lost.” She wasn’t talking about the threat of labels for genetically modified food, but she might as well have been.

Vermont’s latest action undermines the clear, national standards we need. Other states may add to the chaos. The National Conference of State Legislatures counts 84 bills in 29 states involving genetically modified food labels. Although voters in California, Oregon, and Washington state have rejected ballot initiatives to require special labels, more referendums may be on the way. At some point, one may succeed.

This is a recipe for bewilderment among consumers.

Moreover, these laws are bad on the merits. Genetically modified foods are safe and healthy. They don’t need warning labels, as organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the National Academy of Sciences have confirmed. I’d rather entrust my food labels to these experts — and not to a few politicians in Vermont.

Perhaps the legislators who passed Vermont’s new law have good intentions. Just as likely, they’re responding to special interests. Vermont has more organic farmers per capita than any other state, according to The Economist. If consumers come to fear genetically modified food because of special warning labels, organic farmers are hoping to sell more of what they grow for a premium.

Labels should educate, conveying reliable information rather than propaganda. We must honor their basic purpose, not let them become marketing devices for favored groups.

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