A Businessman’s Fight to Get GMO Labels on Food Packages

Dean Cycon thinks consumers should be better informed about what they're eating.

For an entire day, Dean Cycon stepped away from the organic coffee bean company that he runs in Orange so he could casually bounce between offices on Beacon Hill, asking legislators why they haven’t moved forward with bills that would force food companies to put labels on foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.

“I’m a lonely voice out there looking for social justice,” said Cycon, who tried Monday to call elected officials that have attached their names to legislation demanding changes to how foods are labeled on store shelves.

But they never got back to him.

So, rather than waste time trying to schedule an appointment with lawmakers, or frequently dial their office lines in hopes of catching them between meetings, Cycon decided to show up at their door instead.

“If people didn’t say ‘come on in,’ I was going to come in anyways,” said Cycon, owner of Dean’s Beans. “I had a big, long ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington’ type of day. I got a list a mile long [of people I visited]. I dive-bombed them.”

The topic of Cycon’s agenda Tuesday was focused on a set of House bills filed back in June that followed in the footsteps of proposals that were either passed, or promoted, by officials in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont last year, requiring food companies to label packages.

Researchers and activists claim consuming foods containing GMOs can lead to serious health risks, and can be linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects. The call for GMO labels has been a constant fight for many Massachusetts residents over the last year.

In June, after the bills on Beacon Hill—they suggested food distribution companies be forced to place labels front and center on specific products manipulated with GMOs—went through the legislative process, and were discussed during a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Health, Cycon felt like they simply fell flat. “I didn’t get a sense that they were really being championed,” he said.

The deadline for whether or not the committee will move the GMO bills forward is March 19, and Cycon feared that time is running out. To make sure the bills continue to grow, or at least “congeal…into one rock solid piece of legislation everyone could get behind,” he made the door-to-door visits.

If the bills don’t go anywhere, advocates will have to reintroduce similar bills in the 2015 legislative session.  If they do get voted out of committee, proponents will have until July to get the bills to pass.

“Everybody I spoke to gave me the same line—that the bills are in committee, and they are working on the language, and are hoping they will get out before the deadline,” said Cycon.

But rather then feeling as though the response from elected officials was a way to stall his efforts, Cycon came out of his trip to Beacon Hill feeling encouraged. “I felt everyone I spoke to heard me out from a business person’s point of view. They listened to my arguments, and asked good questions. I felt like my voice was heard. I feel good about it,” he said. “I got an enthusiastic response across the board.”

He said many lawmakers and aides he spoke with were mainly concerned about crafting language around the proposals, so that companies don’t feel like they are being forced to put labels on foods that will deter people from buying their products.

Cycon said as a business owner who distributes organic goods he lets customers know what they are consuming, and he expects the same from other brands.

But he was sympathetic to the fact that rather than put an ominous label on the very front of a food package, it could be more feasible to move the proposed laws forward by instead having companies include the warning near the nutrition information on the back.

“One of the specifics was on where the notification would go, and people seemed nervous about calling it a ‘warning,’” he said. “I said it should be put with the other ingredients. If it looks like a big warning, and you’re saying to the buyer ‘don’t buy this,’ that’s one thing. But if you put it on the back it’s not a warning. It’s an information piece. I think that’s a neutral statement, and I think people were pleased with that idea.”

Cycon said he had one more stop to make at a state official’s satellite office away from Beacon Hill, but he was confident that by March, when the deadline to push the proposals forward approaches, a bill will be ready. “I do have faith that they will get voted out. Enough people in the state care about this, and enough legislators understand it, and as long as more pressure is put on these folks they will turn out a bill,” he said. “You had your hearings, you got your information, don’t think the people aren’t paying attention—get to work.”