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Why these Richmond chefs are pushing for GMO labels on food

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Posted at 8:44 AM, Oct 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-22 15:44:31-04

WASHINGTON — A group of Richmond chefs, restaurateurs and farmers traveled to Capitol Hill Tuesday to speak with Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine about GMO labeling. The chefs were brought together by Just Label It!, a group pushing Congress to pass laws that force food manufacturers to label whether or not their food contains GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

GMO foods have been in our food supply for about 20 years, according to the FDA. The World Health Organization reported genetically modified foods “currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” but the local chefs say labeling is all about food transparency.

“It’s become important because our consumers are educated when it comes to food,” Joe Sparatta, chef and owner of Richmond restaurants Heritage and Southbound, said. “We want to be able to tell them where the food they order comes from.”

Sparatta was joined by Lee Gregory, chef and owner of The Roosevelt and Southbound, Jason Alley, chef and owner of Comfort and Pasture and Ellwood Thompson Market owner Rick Hood, among others, at the Capitol.

Left to right-- First Row - Chef Lee Gregory-Roosevelt; Sue Ellen Johnson - VA Biological Farming Association; Anthony Flaccavento - Abingdon Organics; Scott Faber, Just Label It Campaign; Hillary Lewis, CEO Lumi Organics & Juice; Gary Hirsberg, CEO Stonyfield Farms and Chairman of Label It Campaign. Second Row - Chef Jason Alley- Pasture & Comfort; Chef Joe Sparatta - Heritage & Southbound; Rick Hood, Owner Ellwood Thompson Market; Shane Emmett, CEO Health Warrior; Cody Boyd - Native American Farmers Association; Clay Trainium - Autumn Olive Farms; John Boyd - President National Black Farmers Association. (PHOTO: Bea González)

Left to right– First Row – Chef Lee Gregory-Roosevelt; Sue Ellen Johnson – VA Biological Farming Association; Anthony Flaccavento – Abingdon Organics;  Scott Faber, Just Label It Campaign; Hillary Lewis, CEO Lumi Organics & Juice; Gary Hirsberg, CEO Stonyfield Farms and Chairman of Label It Campaign.
Second Row – Chef Jason Alley- Pasture & Comfort; Chef Joe Sparatta – Heritage & Southbound; Rick Hood, Owner Ellwood Thompson Market; Shane Emmett, CEO Health Warrior; Cody Boyd – Native American Farmers Association; Clay Trainium – Autumn Olive Farms; John Boyd – President National Black Farmers Association.
(PHOTO: Bea González)

Sparatta said he did not believe labeling foods GMO would have a negative impact on the sale of those foods.

“As chefs, we consistently get questions about the origin of the food we prepare, we never want to tell our customers we don’t know,” he said.

While no vote is scheduled on GMO labeling in the Senate, Sens. Warner and Kaine wanted to hear from the chefs and restaurateurs so they could be sure to consider their opinions once the issue arises.

“As a Richmond resident, I have frequented many of the restaurants and farms whose proprietors came in to meet this week, and it was valuable to listen to their views,” Senator Kaine (D – Virginia) said. “Those visiting my office made a strong case for why Congress should not make it harder for consumers to be informed about what is in the food that they eat. While it is unclear when legislation on this topic will come before the Senate, it was good to hear this perspective.”

“I very much appreciated the opportunity to meet with local chefs, farmers, and restaurant owners to hear their perspectives on this issue,” Senator Warner (D – Virginia) said. “As the debate over GMO labeling and biotechnology heats up in Congress, I look forward to hearing Virginians’ views and continuing this conversation.”

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015

Over the summer, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 275-150 to pass a bill called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. The act would create a national food labeling standard that, despite its name,  would not force food makers to disclose whether the food was genetically modified, The Hill reported.

“Precisely zero pieces of credible evidence have been presented that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to our health and safety,” the bill’s author Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas ) told The Hill. “We should not raise prices on consumers based on the wishes of a handful of activists.”

Recently Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have taken steps to pass GMO-labeling laws on the state level. A law passed by Congress and signed by the president setting national standards that do not require GMO disclosure, could derail those state efforts.

“Consumers have the right to know what is in their food and how it is grown,”Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture. “We strongly support a national GMO disclosure system that provides factual information. We do not support a warning or a disclosure system that renders a judgment on GMOs and are certainly not seeking a ban on GMO crops. Rather, we support a value-neutral disclosure that respects the right of consumers to make their own choices.”

Back in Richmond, Chef Sparatta said the labeling issue not only impacts his business, but affects his kitchen table, too.

“It’s not about stopping the production of GMO foods,” he said. “I just want to know what my child is eating.”