Bipartisan GMO Labeling Bill Passes in Senate, Opinions Divided Within Organic Community

gmo labeling bill will not have clear on-package labels

The bipartisan GMO labeling bill developed by Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow passed in the Senate last week. While many big names in organics, including representatives from the Just Label It campaign and Whole Foods Market, voiced their general support of the bill for bringing more transparency to the food system, specifically the presence of genetically modified ingredients, opposers including the Organic Consumers Association went so far as to dump $2,000 in $1 bills on the Senate floor July 6 in protest.

The divisive nationwide bill is more lenient than the law that went into effect in Vermont on July 1, which will now be voided.

The new GMO labeling bill does not outline enforcement mechanisms and allows several foods, including certain meat products, exemption from labeling. The bill allows companies to opt for placing an SR code, phone number, or website on products instead of blatant on-package labeling stating the presence of genetically modified organisms. This is one of the main issues that opposers have with the legislation.

The bill contains language that may allow foods that are made with genetically modified ingredients but do not contain genetically modified genetic material, such as processed oils and sweeteners, to be exempt from the law. This would include canola oil and sugar rendered from sugar beets, two of the largest GMO crops in the U.S.

Firm opposers of the bill cite the contributions of agribusinesses to Senator campaigns as the motivation behind Wednesday’s protest. According to a June 29 analysis by the Organic Consumers Association, the average agribusiness contribution for “yes” voters ($867,518) was two-and-a-half times more than the average for “no” voters ($350,877).

The Organic Consumers Association attacked major organic brands that voiced their support of the bill, dubbing them “organic traitors.” This list includes Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, Stonyfield Farm and Just Label It CEO Gary Hirshberg, Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, and the Organic Trade Association.

“You (Gary Hirsberg [sic] from Stonyfield Farm and Just Label It) and the other Organic Traitors (Organic Trade Association, UNFI, Whole Foods, Environmental Working Group, Organic Valley) need to issue a joint press statement denouncing the anti-consumer, anti-states’ rights Roberts/Stabenow bill and telling Congress to step back and let the Vermont law do its work, forcing companies, including your bosses at Danone, to label or reformulate their GMO and pesticide-tainted foods,” Organic Consumer Association co-founder Ronnie Cummins wrote to Hirshberg last week.

Hirshberg voiced support of the nationwide standard the GMO labeling bill would put into place but criticized the lack of on-package labeling. “The GMO labeling legislation passed by the Senate last night falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple, at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package,” he said Friday. “It also contains ambiguities that could needlessly narrow the scope of biotechnologies covered and is vague on what GMO content levels require labeling and enforcement penalties for non-compliance.”

Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb also supported the bill and, after being attacked for his opinions by those calling this bill the new DARK act, published a blog post explaining his position.

“While the Stabenow-Roberts bill and the Vermont bill both aim to make it easier for consumers to identify GMO ingredients for consumers— a good thing at the fundamental level—no piece of legislation is perfect,” he wrote. “Whole Foods Market has supported all state-level GMO labeling initiatives where we have stores with the hope that any bills that pass will lead to national legislation.”

Robb also voiced concern with regards to the QR code option, as did the Center for Food Safety, noting that only 64 percent of Americans have a smartphone.

Now that the GMO labeling bill has passed in the Senate, it must be reconciled with the House’s bill before a final version is signed by the White House.

The US Department of Agriculture will be responsible, over the next two years, for deciding exactly how to implement the new law. The USDA has said that it will include commercially-grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar, and canola crops in the list of GMO foods, despite the vague language of the bill that suggests the contrary.

“The fight for national mandatory GMO transparency now shifts to USDA and to the marketplace, where companies should think twice before they remove GMO labels from their packages,” Hirshberg said.

The United States is the world’s largest market for foods made with GMOs, but polls show that 9 out of 10 Americans want GMO labeling on packages.

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Woman in the supermarket image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco