Last November, California became the first state to put the issue on the ballot. Proposition 37, the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” called for such disclosure on the labels of some raw and processed foods sold in stores. It also prohibited them from being advertised as “natural.” And it didn’t give dog chow a free pass.
Although the measure targeted human consumers, the California Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law applies to both human and animal foods. So any pet food with a detectable level of genetically engineered content would also have to note on its label, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
That would mean a lot of new label text in the dog food aisle. Over 90 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 85 percent of its corn is genetically modified, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crops, modified to resist pests or withstand high doses of weed killer, are common in processed foods such as cereals and dog food.
But even with strong consumer support, the label law failed to pass. The organic industry and other advocates were outspent by biotech companies led by Monsanto—the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds—and the food industry, including Big Dog Food. Nestle, owner of Purina PetCare Company and Mars, the maker of Nutro and Pedigree dog food, donated funds to help defeat it.
The Pet Food Institute and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council argued that the label requirements would increase costs for farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike. Heated editorials appeared on Petfoodindustry.com.
“Putting scary sounding labels on pet food packaging will likely mislead consumers and impact their purchasing choices,” states a “No on 37” Campaign flyer.
In one ad by the campaign, a befuddled-looking man held up a slab of meat and a pet food canister. The line read, “So dog food would need a label but my steak wouldn’t?” The ad aimed at exemptions in the law that might confuse consumers; in this case, that processed beef dog food would be labeled but beef from animals fed genetically engineered crops wouldn’t.
Label supporters say that, given the prevalence of genetically modified ingredients and the scale of the industrial supply chain, a label that covers many of these foods is a good start (for example, dog food with beef which may contain bioengineered ingredients, such as vegetable oils).
Some dog owners already consider mainstream pet food, with its uniform nubs of dry kibble or wet mush, mere canine junk food; fast, convenient, and nutritionally questionable. But are those genetically modified morsels unhealthy in other ways?
The science is inconclusive. A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA altered by the insertion of genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. The traditional means—plant breeding—allows desired traits to be cultivated, or unwanted effects to be eliminated, over time. Gene-splicing also shortcuts the long process of adaptation and evolution that occurs between food and consumers,
The FDA has ruled that these foods are “substantially equivalent to conventionally produced foods,” and does not safety test them. Unless they contain a known allergen, there is only a voluntary consultation process with developers, who conduct their own testing. But scientists say that the potential for creating new allergens and toxicants in bioengineered foods is there. At the same time, corporate patent rights over seeds limit independent researchers’ ability to study them.
California’s failed initiative calls labels “a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.” Dog owners may agree. How would anyone know if genetically altered foods are triggering disease in dogs? Shouldn’t vets know what the pets they attend to are eating?
One thing is clear: it isn’t over. Several states are now working on proposals for their own label laws.
Editor's note: Starting in 2018 Whole Foods will be labeling GMO foods. And even Wal-Mart has been looking at labeling as well.