At some point, the food industry has to ask if the expensive battles it has fought against states' efforts to require labels on genetically modified products are worth it.
The latest example: a lawsuit Washington state filed last week against the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The complaint by the state's attorney general says the trade group laundered more than $7 million and passed it along to its anti-labeling political action committee to skirt campaign-finance reporting laws ahead of a state ballot initiative next month on GM labeling. The group says it did nothing wrong.
No matter the merits of the suit, it isn't exactly the kind of publicity you want in the midst of an election campaign. And surely the industry has to be thinking about the fallout from the methods it used in a successful fight against a similar measure last year in California. There, as in Washington, the same themes were invoked by anti-labeling forces: Labeling would increase the cost of food; jobs would be lost at a time when the nation could ill afford that; and the public would be misled into believing that the food it consumes isn't safe.
In California, those arguments -- backed by $45 million in campaign contributions -- tipped the balance in favor of the anti-labeling forces after polls showed the proponents ahead during much of the campaign.
But the industry engaged in some uncharacteristic introspection after the fight. Earlier this year, a group of major food producers and retailers gathered in Washington, D.C., to take up the question of whether continued opposition to labeling was a viable stand. Led by the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the country's biggest retailer, the group considered getting behind a national labeling law.
At least, that was what news reports at the time suggested. Now, based on what's going on in Washington state, it should be pretty clear what the group concluded in that meeting.
There is something to be said for the food industry's core argument -- that there is no evidence indicating that GM foods are scientifically different from other foods or pose a threat to human health. But in an era when people are more aware than ever about what they eat, opposition to labeling is at odds with public demand for transparency. Mark Lynas, a vocal proponent of GM food -- and formerly one of its most ardent and articulate foes -- made just this point to a food-industry convention last week.
The industry needs to do a hardheaded cost-benefit analysis. So far in 2013, 23 states have introduced labeling legislation. Some bills have stalled in committee, while others are working their way through the legislative digestive system. Eventually, some probably will be adopted; polls routinely show large majorities of the public want labeling. And where will that leave the food industry? Dealing with a patchwork of state laws with different labeling standards? That can't be what the industry wants.
One option the industry has considered is going to Congress and pushing for a national no-labeling law that pre-empts whatever the states do. Who knows -- given how much money the industry seems willing to spend, that might work.
A better idea, though, is to make it clear to consumers what's in the food they eat. The intimation that somehow this would be a huge cost burden hardly seems credible: Processed foods of all kinds bear ingredient labels and nutritional values, not to mention plenty of fancy graphics designed to entice consumers.
Then the industry should use the money now being spent on fighting label laws to educate and convince the public that there's no known threat from food ingredients that are genetically modified to resist pests, grow with less fertilizer or contain beneficial nutrients.
(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)