What Senate backers aren’t saying about the GMO “compromise” bill

1. Will Senate vote nullify Vermont’s historic GMO labeling law?
2. What Senate backers aren’t saying about the GMO “compromise” bill

1. Will Senate vote nullify Vermont’s historic GMO labeling law?

Wenonah Hauter
EcoWatch, June 30, 2016
[links to sources are at the URL above]

Tomorrow, Vermont’s historic GMO labeling law goes into effect. This is the first law enacted in the U.S. that would provide clear labels identifying food made with genetically engineered ingredients. Indeed, stores across the country are already stocking food with clear on-package labels thanks to the Vermont law, because it’s much easier for a company to provide GMO labels on all of the products in its supply chain than just the ones going to one state.

But this victory may be fleeting. The Senate will vote next week on a federal bill that would nullify Vermont’s law and other state labeling efforts percolating, thanks to the heavy hand the ag-biotech industry wields over our congressional representatives.

With a vote for this so-called “compromise” bill, Congress would effectively be pulling transparent GMO labels from grocery stores. This legislation is in effect a voluntary disclosure bill since there are no penalties for companies that decide not to comply with the mandate to provide even the most meager disclosure mechanisms, like QR codes or 1-800 numbers. And the definition of GMO in the bill is so flawed that many products containing GMOs would not be covered.

The Senate should not vote to roll back the popularly enacted Vermont law and replace it with a giveaway to the agriculture industry. The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable if they vote to strip away transparency about how their food is produced. We urge the Senate to reject this bill.

2. What Senate backers aren’t saying about the GMO “compromise” bill

By Wenonah Hauter
The Hill, 1 July 2016
[links to sources are at the URL above]

Last week, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced what they bill as a “compromise” deal that would label GMO foods across the nation. But the advocacy groups that have fought so long and hard for clear GMO labeling aren’t cheering: They know the bill is a gift to the agribusiness and biotech industries—not a compromise. That’s why consumer advocates have dubbed the bill the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.

Here’s what the backers of the bill don’t want their constituents to know about the DARK Act:

The Bill Is Not a National Labeling Solution.

The backers of the Senate bill are portraying this as a big victory for those of us who don’t live in Vermont, which passed a GMO labeling law that goes into effect today. (The Senate committee’s Twitter feed even posted a map showing that their bill would spread Vermont-style labeling across all 50 states.) But this is a misleading claim.

The Vermont law is about clear, on-package labeling, but that’s not what the Senate is proposing. This bill is not about expanding GMO labeling; it’s about preventing states like Vermont from taking action. As the bill states, it would "immediately prohibit states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered.”

The fact is, clear GMO labels are already appearing in stores nationwide, thanks to the Vermont law, because it’s much easier for a company to provide GMO labels on all of its products than just the ones going to Vermont. Companies that have publicly agreed to comply with the Vermont law include Mars, General Mills, Kellogg’s, ConAgra, and Campbell Soup. GMO labels can already be found on packages of Snickers, M&Ms, Lay’s Potato Chips, Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos and Smartfood Popcorn, among others. But this bill would put an end to that.

Furthermore, New York, Massachusetts and other states have ongoing efforts to label GMOs at the state level—efforts that the DARK Act would effectively shut down. Indeed, that is its true purpose.

The Bill Does Not Clearly Label GMOs.

Advocates of GMO labeling have pushed for clear, on-package language, just like what’s required under the Vermont law. But the Senate bill would allow manufacturers to post “call for more information” phone numbers or even smart phone “QR codes” if they so desire—meaning that if you have a phone with the right app installed, a steady hand and a solid data connection you’ll be able to access a website that will tell you what’s in the food you’re buying.

That’s not a label—that’s a hassle.

The Bill Has No Penalties for Violators.

In announcing the bill, Sen. Stabenow said: “For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.” But there is no mandatory recall authority if a company does not comply with the suggested QR code or 800 number options (or any of the other vague and meager aspects of the bill.) Nor are there any penalties or fines associated with non-compliance. How can labels be mandatory if there are not even the most modest attempts to require enforcement?

The Bill Does Not Cover All Genetically Engineered Food Ingredients.

A bill that claims to be a “mandatory system of disclosure for food that contains GMO ingredients” must require labels that mention GMOs, right? Not necessarily. As McClatchy reported, “food manufacturers would have wide discretion under the new law to comply, and the now-familiar terms ‘GMO,’ ‘genetically modified’ or ‘biotechnology’ aren’t guaranteed to appear.”

Furthermore, the definition of “genetically engineered” could mean that some of the most pervasive GMO crops might not require a label. That’s why Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said the bill “would potentially allow products with a significant portion of GMO ingredients to skate by without being subject to labeling requirements.” The bill would not even apply to many forms of genetically engineered food—only foods produced with traditional forms of genetic engineering. This leaves out emerging techniques like gene editing.

The Bill Benefits Corporations, Not Consumers

The industry has been chomping at the bit to repeal Vermont’s law. This bill does that. The industry has long said GMO labels should be voluntary, meaning companies get to decide how much information consumers get. That’s precisely what this bill does—puts all the power in the hands of food companies, while ensuring that consumers are left wondering what is in their food. This bill is no compromise—it’s a gift to agribusiness and biotechnology companies that have fought popular, state-based labeling initiatives for the past five years.

Americans should know this—even if Senate backers of the bill refuse to say it.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy organization.