A friend advised me to buy ‘cholesterol free’ peanuts from a particular store. When I asked for them, the store clerk searched the shelves, then looked at me with a quizzical smile and said, “None of them has cholesterol!”

We read random scary reports and health recommendations and don’t know what we are doing. I look at the label on the food items I buy and beyond trying to cut back on fat and sugar, don’t know what to make of the rest of the information there. But when we learn that food additives and colourings can be carcinogenic, it is enough to put the fear of God into us about genetically modified organisms, or GMO.

When GMO’s okay

GMO seeds took off a few years ago when companies like Monsanto began genetic modification to make plants immune to the pesticides they sell. As GMO technology spread, it was hailed as the solution to our food problems. In the US, about 88 per cent of corn and 94 per cent of soya beans grown are genetically modified.

Europeans have for long resisted blanket permission for foods with GMO ingredients. The European Food Safety Authority lays down very rigorous requirements. Some varieties of GMO corn, beet, maize and so on are allowed. Honey containing pollen from GMO plants are okay, as are meat, eggs, milk obtained from animals fed GMO ingredients.

Effective July 2016, Vermont in the US will be the first to require products to be so labelled if they contain GMO. Grocery manufacturers have been challenging attempts to mandate GMO labelling. The main reason, of course, is anticipated consumer resistance.

Many health and food websites warn us against lots of stuff we eat and some food-related businesses have begun to clean up their act. The US restaurant chain Chipotle has announced that it will remove GMO ingredients from its food. Kraft has announced that it will stop using the artificial colouring that makes its popular macaroni and cheese a bright yellow. Nestle, the Swiss company, has promised to remove artificial flavours and colours from its chocolates.

Pushing manufacturers

Retailers have also been pushing the manufacturers to listen. Whole Foods Market, a US high-end organic foods retailer, has identified 80 items including bleached flour, vanillin and aspartame as ingredients that must not be present in foods it sells. Consumers are increasingly prepared to pay higher prices for ‘safe’foods. This is also motivating farmers to switch back from the highly productive GMO seeds to organic grains.

With the Vermont decision, food companies should realise that it is best to fall in line and reveal their GMO ingredients. About 20 other states in the US are considering their own GMO labelling regulations. It would be too expensive to have separate labelling for each state. The battle would now shift to influencing standards and requirements for labelling. By setting the bar high, many firms may try to slip under the requirement and not reveal GMO information.

The US federal government must establish a national certification programme specifying the labelling requirements. Clearly, consumers want more information, irrespective of scientific studies on whether it is safe or not.

The writer is a professor at Jindal Global Business School, Delhi NCR, and Suffolk University, Boston