Good news or bad? G.M.O. labeling bill expected to be signed by President

10235050804_ba782b0da1_h.jpgAfter several years of heated debate between the food industry (i.e.Grocery Manufacturers Association) and advocates for straightforward labeling of foods containing G.M.O.s (Just Label It being one of the leaders, along with the State of Vermont, which has already issued their own label law), S. 764 has headed for the President’s desk. It appears at our press time that he will sign it. This compromise bill will block or overrule states that issue mandatory labeling laws by unifying labeling requirements nationwide. Bill supporters say it will help avoid consumer confusion as well as help the food industry cleave to a standard.

A standard? Many consumers might think this means one method of labeling, but S. 764 actually specifies three different ways to label products so that consumers are informed of the presence of G.M.O.s. One of them—a real bone of contention—will require consumers to use a “digital link” (Q.R. code) to see if a product contains G.M.O.s. The thought of pulling out your phone or other device to scan the labels of food products as you head through the aisles of your grocery store is daunting to most consumers—and discriminatory toward those who don’t have a phone or know how to scan Q.R. codes.

Consumer-rights advocates have long called efforts to create a national G.M.O. labelling standard the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” Act (D.A.R.K. Act). As the bill neared a vote last week, Dianne Lugo in Science Magazine reported:

Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT) spoke against the bill during yesterday’s debate, describing it as “a farce of a proposal.” He argued 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.”

But Senator Joe Donnelly (D–IN), who supported the bill, said it was a reasonable measure. “It will provide fair and objective information without stigmatizing foods that are completely safe,” he said on the Senate floor. “After months of discussion, we have found a sensible proposal that will bring the right information into our homes and to grocery stores in a responsible way.”

What will happen when the bill is signed into law? You might see an ongoing dispute in the courts, as reported by Stephanie Strom in today’s N.Y.Times:

What today really means is that we’ve left the legislative period of this battle after seven years and moved into the regulatory and marketplace phase of it, which was where it was always headed anyway,” said Gary Hirshberg, a founder of Just Label It, a coalition that advocates labeling.

The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, has said the bill’s definition of which foods would require labeling would not include many products containing highly refined oil and sweeteners like canola oil or high-fructose corn syrup. After processing, such ingredients contain no genetic material that would identify them as coming from a genetically engineered source, which is what the bill requires.

The Agriculture Department, which will oversee G.M.O. labeling under the law, has disagreed with that interpretation, but many say the definition of what requires labeling and what does not will ultimately end up in court.

The bill’s label requirements may eventually be a moot point. Consumers are demanding clear labeling. According to Label Insight (a data firm which supports the passage of S. 764):

...consumers feel as though they’re in the dark about what’s really in the products they use and consume. Yet, our study shows that nearly all respondents (94 percent) say it is important to them that the brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made. And, more than two-thirds (83 percent) say they would find value in having access to more in-depth product information.

Despite consumers valuing transparency, a mere 12 percent ranked brands as their most trusted resource for information about what is in their own food. Still, 67 percent of consumers believe it is the brand or manufacturer’s responsibility to provide them with this information.

Bill or no bill, the marketplace has already headed toward a day when those consumers who don’t want to consume G.M.O.s will head for stores such as Whole Foods Market, which will require clear labeling in two years, or simply look for brands sold anywhere that clearly state that they are G.M.O.-free. Just as the organic movement has gathered steam to the point where it’s taking over shelf space with organic products in ALL stores, so, too, will, G.M.O.-free labels, big and bold, become a dominant force in the marketplace.

PHOTO: by Susan Melkisethian via Flicker



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