Tom Colicchio is the founder and a board member of Food Policy Action, a group that says its mission is to “hold legislators accountable on votes that have an effect on food and farming.” Recently, the organization is trying to raise awareness about the so-called Deny Americans the Right to Know or DARK Act, a bill that has passed the House of Representatives and was released to the Senate for review last Friday. The DARK Act would prevent mandatory labeling of GMOs and deny consumers the right to know if their food contains genetically modified ingredients. Colicchio wants to make sure it does not become the law of the land.
To further his cause, Colicchio has asked chefs nationwide to sign a petition that says the following: “As chefs, we have a fundamental right to know what’s in the food we cook and serve to our customers. We urge you to reject any attempt to prevent the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.” A stunning 4,200 chefs from over 46 states have already signed on. To learn more about the law and about Colicchio’s passionate opposition to the DARK Act, we sat down with the renowned restaurateur and Top Chef head judge.
MUNCHIES: Your petition is a “right to know” petition—it calls for accurate labeling, not a ban of GMOs. Why did you choose to champion transparency over an outright ban?
Tom Colicchio: I don’t necessarily believe that GMOs are inherently dangerous. I think in some instances, GMOs can be very helpful. They do show a lot of promise, but I still believe that people have a right to know what’s in their food. If I choose to opt out of supporting these kinds of practices, I should have the ability to know and make my decision.
How do you feel about those who argue that just offering up information in QR [quick response] barcodes would suffice?
What I would like to see is a discreet label—it could be in the ingredient label, so it would say GE or GMO corn. Then I think there is room for QR codes, where you could have more information about the traits the GE corn or soy actually has. I don’t think enough people have smartphones for the information to be available just in QR codes. You would also have to assume that every store would have internet access, so I don’t think that enough people could participate in it for it to be meaningful.
We as a nation waste about 40 percent of what we produce. How about we waste less food if we want to talk about feeding the world?
What corporations are behind this DARK Act, and why don’t they want chefs and consumers to know what’s in their food?
Everything from Big Ag to food companies are behind DARK Act. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is supporting it and so are companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow.
The Big Food corporations are saying that GMOs “feed the world,” including the hungry and food insecure. What do you say in response to this defense?
There are plenty of studies that show that organic farming can feed the world as well. There are plenty of other ways to boost yields. Listen, Monsanto also does regular breeding in addition to GE breeding and they finding that a lot of these conventional methods offer better yields. It’s a tool that we should be using, but it’s not the only tool we should be using. Right now, we as a nation waste about 40 percent of what we produce. How about we waste less food if we want to talk about feeding the world?
You’ve focused on outing the food-law reputations of legislators through your organization, Food Policy Action. Can you tell us why you think the champions of the DARK bill are behind this bill?
They’re being politicians. They’re just protecting their funding stream, and I get that, it’s politics. I guarantee that on 100 other issues, Pompeo [who introduced the bill] would be all for states’ rights. Now all of a sudden, it’s like “to hell with the states, we need a federal bill.” We believe the same. We need a federal bill to label all transgenic GMO foods.
The bill has already passed the House of Representatives and now it is going to go before the Senate. What do you think your chances are of influencing that vote?
You have to look at the fact that Senator Pat Roberts [who sponsored the bill in the Senate] would need 60 votes and he is starting out with a few less, because the likelihood of Cruz and Rubio showing up for that vote is pretty slim. They have to pull Democrats in to get this passed, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
People love to say, ‘Let’s keep politics out of the kitchen.’ Well, guess what? Every single thing that is in your kitchen is touched by policy.
How do you feel about the state of food transparency overall? We’ve seen the rise recently of some particularly malicious ag-gag laws. Have things gotten better or worse in your mind?
It’s gotten far worse. The ag-gag laws in place are ridiculous. On the other hand, more and more we see people asking for more information about food supply. Look at what’s going on in Flint, Michigan with the water supply. These are basic things that we should be able to get right and who is it affecting? Largely poor people. We need to be more transparent and we need to look at the health of our population.
When we spoke back in October, you said you felt chefs—in particular celebrity chefs—don’t have a responsibility or obligation to try to influence food policy. Still, it must be gratifying to have so many chefs get behind your petition to require labeling of genetically modified food. How do you feel about the support you’ve received?
I think we are up to 4,000 chefs who have signed the petition. As citizens, I think we all have an obligation to exercise our right to be heard. That’s what democracy is all about. I would never tell a chef that it is their obligation to speak out on these issues, but I would certainly like them to do so if they choose to. The more people that are involved, the stronger our democracy is. Some people love to say, “Let’s keep politics out of the kitchen.” Well, guess what? Every single thing that is in your kitchen is touched by policy, so therefore, it’s touched by politics. If you think that’s not the truth, you’re just kidding yourself.
Thanks for speaking with us, Tom.