When the new federal GMO labeling bill passed into law on July 29, invalidating Vermont’s far more stringent legislation, a lot of those in the organic food world were less than pleased. And for good reason – the new law is neither ideal nor perfect, and it leaves some major holes in nationwide legislation of genetically modified foods.
When you consider that as much as 75 percent of the food that Americans buy at the local supermarket contains GMO ingredients -- mainly genetically modified corn, soy, canola, and sugar from sugar beets -- and that most of these GMOs were developed specifically to resist herbicides such as Monsanto's dangerous glyphosate-based Roundup, it's no wonder people are concerned.
But you'll be even more upset when you realize just how much this law has failed those who were demanding transparency from our food system. Here are five major flaws with the new legislation.
1. The GMO labeling law won’t change anything any time soon.
Vermont’s legislation had already passed and was in use by the time the federal bill was signed into law, but while it nullified Vermont’s legislation immediately, we’ll have to wait at least another two years for any nationwide GMO labeling to come of the new law.
The USDA has been given two years to finalize the details of the regulations, at which point the labeling law will be enforced. Smaller companies will have an additional year to get their GMO labeling done, and tiny food companies – those making less than $1 million in sales per year – will be exempt entirely.
2. It won’t add clear labels to packaging.
Vermont’s GMO labeling law required that clear labels be added to the packaging of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Makes sense, right? But the new federal law's regulations are not nearly this clear.
The federal GMO labeling law gives producers several options for labeling GMOs, including words on the package label, a yet-to-be designed symbol, a 1-800 phone number that consumers can call to acquire this information, or even a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphones and will lead to a website containing the information.
Pro-labeling advocates like Andrea Stander, executive director for Rural Vermont, a grassroots organization that supports small farmers, believe a large percentage of poor, elderly, and rural consumers, “will have no way to access the information that the companies choose to provide through digital technology,” she told Modern Farmer.
More than 50 percent of America’s poor and rural populations and more than 65 percent of the elderly do not own smartphones. Add to this the number of people who live in areas lacking Internet access or who cannot afford monthly phone payments, and a minimum of about 100 million Americans will be left in the dark if QR codes are used by manufacturers as the sole source for determining whether or not the product contains GMO ingredients.
3. Lots of GMOs will go unlabeled.
Because the bipartisan bill needed to be passed so quickly to preempt Vermont’s state law, the legislation is incredibly vague on details, leaving much of how to label – and even what to label – up to the USDA.
Senator Patrick Leahy noted that, “with the swift speed with which the proponents of this bill have moved, with no committee process, no debate or amendment process, we will not be able to ensure the language in this bill does exactly what they say that it does. Just take their word for it.”
While according to USDA’s General Counsel, the law gives the USDA "the authority" to label all GMO corn, soy, canola, and sugar from sugar beets, it also doesn’t require it, particularly when it comes to ultra-refined products coming from genetically modified sources – like soy oil, canola oil, or even corn syrup where the genetic material has been processed out.
As these ultra-refined products do not contain genetic material, they could technically go unlabeled under the new law, meaning that many of the processed foods that GMO labeling advocates wanted to avoid could end up being hidden in clear sight.
4. It will make choosing GMO-free meat difficult.
There is currently no genetically modified meat on the market – GMO salmon, while approved, has yet to be sold in the U.S. GMOs do infiltrate our meat market, however, through genetically modified livestock feed.
This GMO-fed meat and other animal products like milk, butter, eggs, and cheese will not have to be labeled under the current stipulations of the law.
And what’s more, when GMO salmon does make it to market, it will not necessarily have to be labeled either, as it is modified using genes found in nature rather than genes engineered in a lab. Even the FDA says that the definition of “bioengineering” in the law is too narrow, particularly given the fact that it would exclude gene editing from the definition of genetically modified organisms.
For these reasons, the GMO labeling law effectively does nothing to help consumers make educated choices about meat and animal products.
5. Companies that don’t comply with the new GMO labeling law won’t be punished.
Whereas Vermont’s law called for a fine of $1,000 per day per product not complying with the regulations, Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the pro-GMO labeling campaign Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm, notes that the new law “is vague on (…) enforcement penalties for non-compliance.”
The USDA would have no authority to require recalls of products that do not comply with the law, and there would be no federal penalties for violations – that’ll be up to individual states, who can impose fines for violations if they so choose.
So Is There Any Merit to the Law?
This law is far from a perfect representation of what GMO labeling activists want, but there are a few merits to it, something that the Organic Trade Association, one of several organic trade groups to support the bill, recognized.
The Just Label It coalition, which includes the Environmental Working Group, declared the bill a victory, even though it refused to support its passing into legislation, largely due to the QR code stipulation.
“It's not an insignificant achievement that a Republican Congress has decided to mandate a national GMO disclosure on every food package that contains genetically engineered ingredients," said Scott Faber, Executive Director of Just Label It.
So what's not so bad about the law? Here are five elements of the GMO labeling law worth noting.
1. It’s mandatory.
Unlike the earlier version of the bill, passed by the House in July 2015, the new GMO labeling law is indeed mandatory.
The voluntary version of the bill, which was voted down in the Senate in March, would have denied states the right to a mandatory policy, all the while establishing a merely voluntary marketing standard for GMO foods.
“Voluntary standards are no standards at all,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, when the bill was presented to the Senate. “We need to defeat this bill. This is bad, bad, bad policy.”
Luckily, Tester got his wish. While the new law leaves some things to be desired, at least its stipulations will be mandatory nationwide.
2. Organic producers have fewer hoops to jump through.
Organic products are, by their very definition, GMO-free. With all of the press surrounding GMOs, however, there has been confusion amongst consumers, forcing organic producers to go through a third-party certifier to have a GMO-free label on their products.
The new law will allow producers who are certified organic to include a GMO-free label on their products without having to go through a third-party certifier. And that's a pretty big deal for brands and consumers.
Some activists, however, such as Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, are not so happy with this part of the law.
“The last provision in the bill, added at the 11th hour, allows all organic foods to be labeled ‘non-GMO’ without any testing to see whether they contain any GMO contamination, as can happen with some organic products,” he wrote. “So while non-organic companies that want to label non-GMO will have to undergo testing and verification by third-party verifiers like the Non-GMO Project to ensure that they do not have any significant GMO content, that is not so for organic — they will have a 'get out of jail free card'.”
3. It’s going to be less costly.
A huge issue raised amongst GMO labeling detractors has been the added cost to the consumer, which lobbyists claimed would be consequential. While the Environmental Working Group published an infographic demonstrating that GMO labeling would not increase food costs at all, there was the issue of disparate laws throughout the U.S. that could have increased costs to producers.
With one unified standard, these rumors of increased costs with GMO labeling can finally be put to rest.
Even Roger Lowe of the Grocery Manufacturers Association agreed that the new law “will be less costly and confusing to consumers.”
4. It stops the danger of food deserts.
When Vermont’s GMO labeling law passed, companies had three choices: create unique packaging just for Vermont, label GMOs nationwide, or withdraw their products from Vermont stores.
While some companies opted for nationwide labeling, others refused, and this quickly posed a problem in Vermont, where it became difficult to access certain foods including several types of baby formula and products from Del Monte and Heinz.
The nationwide law erases this issue and makes all products available throughout the U.S.
5. Companies can still voluntarily label GMOs.
While the law did put to bed certain state laws, it does not interfere with voluntary GMO labeling initiatives from such companies as Campbell’s, ConAgra, General Mills, and Kellogg’s. Even while we're waiting for the USDA to decide what the new GMO labels will look like, some packages will still transparently include this information.
The law will, however, preempt the Whole Foods directive of labeling all GMO foods sold in its stores by 2018, something that the Organic Consumers Association predicted back in 2013.
The OCA called on Whole Foods to move up its labeling deadline to July 2015, which was the intended date for Washington’s statewide mandatory GMO labeling law, in order to lead the organic industry to end deceptive labeling practices. As it stands, while Whole Foods is still on schedule to include on-package labels on all GMOs sold in its stores, it may be a bit too little too late.
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