Battles over GE Labels

The battle over food labeling continues!

In the last week of June, 2016, a U.S. Senate Committee proposed legislation that would mandate labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Side note: Some news reports refer to labels for “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs,” but the correct term is “genetically engineered organisms” or “GEOs.” Genetic modification includes hybrids that result from human intervention or natural processes, all within a single species. In comparison, genetic engineering involves transferring genes from one species to another. That’s very different!

This bill, called a “compromise,” appears to respond to the vast majority of consumers (up to 90%) who want to know if foods in grocery stores have been produced with genetic engineering. The bill calls for a “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.”

Consumer groups might applaud this bill but instead they are outraged. The bill includes a two-year delay and big loopholes, and lacks enforcement, but here are the two biggest objections:

First, the bill prohibits states from requiring food labels that differ from the federal standard. Requiring food manufacturers to follow the same rules in every state makes sense for everyone, but this bill proposes lower standards than have already been adopted legally in Vermont, and that go into effect on July 1, 2016.

Second, the bill allows food manufacturers to choose from several kinds of labels, including a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link to a website (but not a printed web address). Smaller manufacturers could provide a telephone number to ‘Call for more food information.’ By comparison, Vermont’s law requires food packages to have printed statement in words indicating the presence of GE ingredients. Consumer groups prefer the use of simple statements, and are critical of less accessible forms of information. In particular, they dislike the option for digital QR codes that the consumer must read with a smartphone to connect via the internet to information on GE ingredients.

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the law “replaces the requirement for clear, on-package labels with a convoluted, inconvenient and discriminatory scheme involving barcodes and 1-800 numbers.”

Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety said, This kind of labeling system is inadequate and inherently discriminatory against one-third of Americans who do not own smartphones and even more so against rural, low-income and elderly populations or those without access to the internet.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has promised to place a hold on this legislation. Under Senate rules, a hold will require at least 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to overcome.

Senator Diane Feinstein of California wrote to President Obama years ago asking him to direct the Food & Drug Administration to revise its 21-year old policy that GE is “not necessarily a material fact that must be provided to consumers. She wrote, that surveys have shown that “genetic engineering is clearly of material importance to American consumers.

Wise people do not predict the actions of Congress, but I’m hopeful that plain text labels will eventually become the law of the land.

Vermont’s law is already being followed in some nationally distributed products because food companies do not want state-by-state labeling. Forward-looking companies have begun labeling their products as “GE-free” or “Contains GE ingredients,” and prices haven’t risen at all as a result.

Remember, too, that we already have federal certification of organic foods, which cannot include genetically engineered ingredients.

Click to read the Stabenow Bill on Food Labels.

To see the opposition to this bill by consumer groups, visit the websites of the following groups:
Organic Consumers Association,
Center for Food Safety, and
Just Label It.

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