The latest: Mandatory GMO labeling became law in Vermont on July 1, 2016, but a few days from now, that Vermont law may be illegal. Last week the Senate-passed labeling bill, S. 764, which would create a labeling standard for the whole country that would continue to leave consumers in the dark about whether food contains GMOs.
The House's version of the bill will be taken up this week, and if it's passed, President Obama is expected to sign it into law, according to Bloomberg, meaning a lot of important information will be inaccessible for many.
Here's what would happen if this bill becomes law:
- Food producers would be allowed to label GMOs by text on the packaging, a symbol, or an electronic link that would direct consumers to a website for more information. That electronic link was introduced last December in the form of a QR code that was introduced by the food industry (see below under Clouded Transparency).
- Beef, pork, poultry and eggs wouldn’t be subject to labeling.
- The bill tightly "defines genetic engineering in ways the biotech industry wanted, not including new techniques such as gene editing."
- State-imposed labeling requirements would be banned.
- USDA-certified organic foods would be allowed to label their foods as non-GMO.
It seems likely that food manufacturers are going to get their way and make GMO information as difficult to obtain as possible, while the wishes of 90 percent of Americans who want GMOs labeled right on the food packaging will be ignored by their representatives.
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The last thing many of us want to think about most days is politics. I know I don't. But I pay attention because there are some issues I want to stay informed about, like GMO labeling. It's a good thing I do, or I wouldn't know that the food industry is trying to bypass all the various legislative efforts by Congress and sneak a GMO labeling rider into the current omnibus spending bill. But first, let me back up and explain how this all got started.
An attempt to block states' rights to label GMOs
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, an industry group with an agreeable-sounding name but a not-so-agreeable agenda, asked to have provision put in the 2015 omnibus bill that Congress needed to pass by the end of the year, according to Eater. The provision would "head off at a federal level any state laws on the issue of mandatory GMO labeling."
In late December, the omnibus bill passed, and the provision that would have negated any state laws requiring mandatory GMO labeling didn't make it into the final bill. However, some last-minute language was added to the bill that GMO-labeling advocates see as a win. The language prohibits the FDA from "introducing any food that contains genetically engineered salmon until it publishes its final labeling guidelines," according to The Hill.
If this provision had passed, states would not be allowed to create laws regulating GMO labeling of food. Why? Because the food industry doesn't want mandatory GMO labeling at all, and up until 2014, it had been able to defeat any state that brought GMO labeling up for a public vote. But hat changed in 2014, when Vermont passed the first mandatory GMO labeling law in the country. The law requires foods made with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled by July 2016.
It's no surprise that the food industry had been scrambling to change the Vermont law and to stop mandatory GMO labeling on the state and federal level. It's been a fast-paced year in GMO labeling news, so it helps to look at how the issue unfolded throughout 2015 on both sides of the issue.
February 2015: Right-to-Know Act
The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was reintroduced to Congress after originally being introduced in 2013. The bill would have require GMOs in foods to be clearly labeled so consumers can make informed choices. The bill was introduced just a few days after the USDA approved the first genetically modified apples, engineered so they won't brown when cut open. The apples won't contain any specific information on them or their packaging indicating they are made from GMOs, but they will have a website address on them and the information will be on the website.
The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced in the House as H.R. 913 and the Senate as S. 511 and has gone nowhere since. GovTrack.us gives it a 0 percent chance of being enacted.
March 2015: DARK Act
About a month after the Right-to-Know Act was introduced, the DARK Act was reintroduced to Congress. The act's official name is the Safe And Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, but those who believe they have the right to know have dubbed it the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. The act would make it illegal for states to require labeling — overriding Vermont's 2014 law — and put a voluntary labeling system in place.
That same month Hershey's made a big GMO announcement. It's two most iconic candies, Hershey's Milk Chocolate candy bars and Hershey's Kisses, would be GMO-free by the end of the year. The company said the decision was consumer-driven, and after listening to consumers, it was moving toward transparency of ingredients.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 was introduced in the House as H.R. 1599 and moved through the House quickly, passing on July 23 with a vote of 275-150. On July 24, it moved on to the Senate, read twice and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. The Senate has not done anything with it yet. GovTrack.us gives it a 27 percent chance of being enacted.
April 2015: Vermont as a battleground
In addition to lobbying in Congress, the food industry has been working outside the halls of the Capitol building to stop mandatory GMO labeling. When Vermont passed its labeling law in 2014, lawmakers prepared for a legal battle and created a fund in preparation. The first attempt by the food industry to block Vermont's law failed when a U.S. District Court judge ruled against a request for a preliminary order to block the law. It was only a partial win for Vermont, though. The state had asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit entirely, but the judge denied its request. As of December, the lawsuit is still in process.
The USDA grants Process Verified labels (the new version of this label, unveiled in December, is pictured at right) to food companies "that supply agricultural products or services the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services." The USDA granted a USDA Process Verified Program GMO-free label to an undisclosed food manufacturer. This granting of this label has nothing to do with mandatory labeling or making mandatory labeling illegal. It does, however, indicate that companies are trying to come up with their own way of labeling some specific products as non-GMO while not being required to label all products. This label is basically a marketing label.
November 2015: Defining 'natural'
The FDA took a few steps that fit into the GMO discussion. The first was the approval of GMO salmon to be sold for human consumption. There is no requirement on the label to indicate the salmon is GMO. Listening to consumer concerns, several major retailers — including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Aldi and Target — have promised not to sell GMO seafood in their stores.
The same month, the FDA began the process of defining the word "natural" on food labels. The term is loosely regulated, and consumers have raised concerns over ingredients, including GMOs, that are permitted to be in a food that is marketed with the word "natural" in its name or on its packaging. The FDA opened the issue up to public comment, asking anyone who has an opinion about it whether the term should be defined and if so, what the definition should be and how the word can be used. Whether GMOs are natural or not will be a significant part of the discussion.
December 2015: Clouded transparency
When Hershey's made its big GMO-free announcement in March, what it didn't shout so loudly about was the SmartLabel it was working on. This voluntary label in the form of a QR code was recently introduced by the food industry. Hershey's website says it led this industry-wide solution. But this doesn't seem as transparent as the company announced it wanted to be. SmartLabels would keep GMO information off packaging and put in an app for a mobile device and on company websites, making the information inaccessible to many people who don't have the technology to access it.
Connecting some dots
What seemed like a laudable move back in March to take GMOs out of candy bars now seems like the first dot in a connect-the-dot puzzle that leads to today. Hershey's announcement was made around the same time H.R. 1599 was introduced, a bill that would make labeling voluntary. Hershey's voluntarily took GMOs out of two of its products while it continued to work on the SmartLabel, a label that gives the impression that the food industry is on board with providing voluntary information.
"Look at us," it almost seems like the food industry is saying, "you don't need to enact any mandatory laws. We're giving you all you want already!"
But it's not what we want. What consumers are asking for is mandatory GMO labeling on food packaging. A recent poll by the Mellman Group found that 89 percent of those polled said said they want "mandatory GMO labeling and for that info to be on the label in an easy-to-read format." Nothing the food industry has proposed so far is giving consumers what they are asking for.
It's important to note that none of what has happened regarding GMO labeling is the same as outlawing GMOs in food. It's about the consumer's right to know if GMOs are in the foods so they can choose for themselves and the food industry's attempts to take that right away. Not everyone who wants GMOs labeled believes GMOs should necessarily be outlawed.
Since there are no long-term studies that prove GMOs are safe to eat, since so many other countries require them to be labeled and since the negative environmental impact of growing GMOs is a huge concern, I stand with the nearly 90 percent of American consumers who believe they should be labeled so we can make informed choices.
This story was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated to reflect new information.