LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Over the past two weeks, four big food companies - Kellogg's, General Mills, Mars and ConAgra - announced they will put new labels on their products telling consumers if anything in the food came from a so-called GMO, a genetically modified crop. But these same companies have spent a lot of money fighting such labels. They're on record saying that labeling GMOs is pointless. It's irrelevant to nutrition. It's generally a terrible idea. Here to explain their turnaround is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles. Welcome, Dan.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.
WERTHEIMER: So why are these companies turning around?
CHARLES: This is a fascinating case study in what happens when local politics collides with a giant, integrated national food supply system. The little state of Vermont, two years ago, passed a law requiring labels on all foods that come from genetically engineered crops. The food industry fought this law. They went to court. They fought it in Congress. But so far, they have failed. The law's supposed to go into effect in July. So the companies are now saying, OK, we have to obey this law in Vermont. And we can't come up with special labels just for Vermont. We have to do it nationwide because we sell food nationwide. Essentially, this Vermont law has become the national standard.
WERTHEIMER: Even though it is not nationally required that they do this.
CHARLES: Right. And in fact, the Food and Drug Administration - the federal government says such labels, really, are completely unnecessary because the food from these genetically engineered crops are, nutritionally speaking, exactly like the food from conventional crops. And so there is no reason to label because it's almost misleading to do so.
WERTHEIMER: So is this just a label on the same foods they've always sold? Or do you think it's possible that this will have an effect on what kind of ingredients the companies actually use?
CHARLES: This is a really big question. And it's going to be very interesting to see what plays out because in the public debate over GMO labeling, there's been so much posturing. The people who've been arguing for GMO labels, they've been saying that this is just about transparency, about the right of consumers to know what's in their food. And they've said that this is not going to cost so much. It doesn't cost much to just slap a label on food.
But those same labeling advocates have also been hoping that the labels actually will change the food system - that consumers, having seen the label, will avoid GMOs. And the companies will react by getting rid of GMOs. So this is one scenario - that the labels will drive GMO crops out of agriculture. Now, there's another side. The food companies and other people who've been fighting against labeling, they've been predicting, publicly, that this is, in fact, what will happen - that the label will scare consumers away, they say, for no good reason. And the companies have been saying that's going to drive the GMOs out of the agriculture, and it's going to drive food costs up. Therefore, labels are a bad idea.
But the companies also have a secret hope. Their hope is they'll put those little words on the package - produced with genetic engineering - and consumers will just keep buying the same stuff they always did. This is an experiment that people have been wondering about what would happen for the last 20 years, since GMOs came on the market. And now, finally, maybe we'll see what the truth is.
WERTHEIMER: Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. Dan, thank you.
CHARLES: Thank you.