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Perspective:
Industry Issues

All shook up

Connie Tipton

Connie Tipton is president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. She contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

As I watch all of the political and campaign activities swirling around in these crazy times, I’m thinking about that Elvis Presley song, “All Shook Up.” Although, unlike Elvis who was “shook up” about being in love, my pangs emanate from how politicians and candidates are reacting to the social and political environment. As I say that, I realize it sounds a little foolish. After all, don’t politicians and candidates always react to what’s going on? So what’s needling me that feels so different?

My concerns fall into two groups. The first is Congress and the way members are dealing with issues, relying increasingly on opinions of the “challenging class” of constituents rather than on established facts and rationality. The current debate around labeling of foods and beverages produced with the use of bio-engineering is a perfect example. This so-called “GMO debate” affects the entire food industry. (GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, not a consumer-friendly handle to begin with, but I yield to using the shorthand term because that’s where we are in this ongoing debate.)

The facts are pretty clear: No science has found GMOs to be harmful to human health. In fact, the technology has been in use for two decades without a single instance of harm to human health.

But that hasn’t stopped the debate about whether consumers have the right to know if a product contains anything genetically modified. It’s a subtle shift in tactics, but the effect on food companies remains the same. It’s an interesting issue.

Consumers who want to eat products made without the help of bioengineering can easily make a marketplace choice today and select organically-produced products. But some of these consumers are activists who view this issue through a different lens than the rest of us. They don’t want to make decisions just for themselves; they want to dictate the criteria on which others should make choices.

This approach seems particularly arrogant to me because it will surely raise the cost of getting foods to market and limit the affordability that exists today or that might be enhanced by technology in the future. The push for labeling, in essence, is a regressive tax on those who already struggle to feed their families. Maybe consumers who are clamoring for mandatory labeling of GMOs on all products have the money to buy boutique food, but that shouldn’t allow them to dictate what will happen to new technologies that might help feed others.

But that’s not the only thing about it that bugs me. Nearly half the U.S. Senate recently voted against moving a bill that would have provided federal guidance for GMO labeling on a voluntary basis. I conclude from the debate surrounding this issue that about half the members of the Senate think food companies should provide labeling declaring that a safe technology has been used in making their products. It seems to me that these labels are likely to mislead consumers, and it’s hard to understand why our elected officials think they need to get in the middle of market choices.

Bottom line: Consumer choice in the marketplace has no place on the agenda of the U.S. Senate.

My second concern is that candidates and politicians are increasingly moving to the fringe of every issue and debate. The unfortunate and alarming result is that no one is staking out a reasonable solution on anything.

That’s a major problem for our future since we face so many important areas where Congress and the president need to come together and find common ground, like reform of entitlement programs and tax policy.

I’m not alone here. According to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, “Almost 8 in 10 Americans say they’re dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working.” Or not working, I might add.

There is little or no collaboration or cooperation, certainly between political parties, but even among individuals within parties. And there seems little hope of bridging the distance between Congress and the White House on most issues. It’s hard to see how this will improve as we head into what seem to be some of the most divisive and negative election campaigns in memory, but elections do change the political landscape and can change the tone and tenor in our nation’s capital.

What’s the answer? Each one of us can take responsibility for getting our government back on track. I confess the only way I know to do that is to be actively involved in trying to elect people who better reflect our views. Even that can be hard to do in Washington, D.C., which is where I live, because we have no representation in Congress; we only get a chance to vote in the presidential elections. But certainly it’s not a time to throw up our hands and walk away, however tempting that may be.

Maybe being “all shook up” can bring some major changes that will lead to a more collegial working environment to get our country back on track. I will be engaged and hopeful!

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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