The U.S. Congress recently passed controversial legislation that critics say would establish an ineffective, complex, and confusing system of mandatory disclosure of genetically modified foods in the United States. The so-called “measure concerning bioengineered food disclosure” allows companies to disclose GMO material on food packaging using smartphone enabled quick response (QR) codes or other options, including label statements. The bill will preempt Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law that took effect July 1 as well as other state GMO labeling laws. The legislation, developed as a compromise by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), passed the Senate by a vote of 63-30 and the House of Representatives by 306-117. President Obama was expected to sign the bill.
“Labeling bill is a sham”
Stabenow praised the bill as a “win for consumers and families,” saying that consumers, for the first time, will have a “national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.”
The Roberts-Stabenow bill was supported by large food and agriculture groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Farm Bureau Federation, American
Soybean Association, and—surprisingly, the Organic Trade Association.
But critics, ranging from lawmakers to consumer advocacy groups, blasted the legislation, particularly over the bill’s allowance for QR codes to disclose GMO information.
“The Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill is a sham,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. “Gaping loopholes in this legislation would exempt many GMO foods from being labeled, and the labeling is allowed in a form — a QR code — that many consumers will be unable to access.”
Critics say a large percentage of Americans don’t have smartphones and scanning a QR code would be time-consuming and burdensome for consumers.
A New York Times editorial also criticized the bill’s use of QR codes: “The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public.”
The bill also allows food companies to use website addresses, or 800 phone numbers on food packaging thus creating a multi-step process for consumers to find out if a product contains GMOs.
Speaking against the bill, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that any GMO labeling bill should pass a “one-second” test, meaning that consumers should get the information they need immediately.
Merkley was among 29 other senators, including Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Jon Tester (D-MT) who opposed the bill.
“This is an unenforceable, weak piece of legislation paid for by large corporations,” Sanders said, referring to the millions of dollars spent by large GMO pesticide and food companies to stop GMO labeling initiatives.
Leahy said in a statement: “This purported ‘deal’ does not go far enough to give consumers what they are asking for, a simple on-package label or symbol.”
Blumenthal said: “This bill obfuscates and obstructs.”
During Senate debate over the bill, representatives from the Organic Consumers Association dropped $2,000 in bills on to the Senate floor to protest the corporate money spent to stop mandatory labeling.
Sanders also said the bill was not necessary since major food companies such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, and the Campbell Soup Co. had already started labeling their products containing GMO ingredients to comply with Vermont’s law.
Many loopholes in bill
Critics also say there are major loopholes in the bill. The law would invalidate labeling laws in Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, and Maine, and produce a legal vacuum for at least two years while USDA writes federal rules. The law does not require labeling of meat and dairy products from animals fed GMO feed. Unlike other GMO labeling laws, the Roberts-Stabenow bill does not specify a GMO threshold for labeling, leaving that to the USDA. There is also no enforcement mechanism for businesses that violate the law. The bill’s definition of “bioengineered” specifies that the bill applies to food “that contains genetic material that has been modified” through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques. This would likely leave out many highly processed foods from GMO sources without detectable genetic material, such as refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, oils, or proteins from GMO plants. There are also doubts whether the bill would cover products produced using new genetic engineering technologies such as gene editing.
The Food and Drug Administration also raised concerns about the bill, saying that it “may be difficult” for any GMO food to qualify for labeling under the bill in that it would have to be proven that a GMO product’s modification could not be achieved through conventional breeding or be found in nature, which is nearly impossible to determine.
Despite the bill’s passage, the fight over labeling will likely continue. Just Label It chairman Gary Hirshberg said the labeling fight will now move to the USDA and to the marketplace where, he said: “companies should think twice before they remove GMO labels from their packages.” Activists may target companies that use QR codes. Senator Blumenthal predicts there will be litigation over the new law.