Congress has now passed a federal law on the labeling of genetically modified organisms that—if implemented as written—gives food companies too much leeway to hide ingredients and might even allow some genetically engineered (GE) foods to slip by unlabeled. What now?
Despite assurances that President Obama will sign the law as written, advocates for GMO labeling aren't going to quit now. According to multiple pro-labeling insiders, the groups’ next fight will be twofold: working with the USDA to craft the actual rules around which GE foods must be labeled, and by pressuring companies to disclose GMOs on packaging by threatening boycotts and other market-based consequences.
In late June, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., reached a bipartisan compromise to create a federal labeling standard for GE foods that would eliminate the need for similar state laws, such as the one that went into effect in Vermont on July 1. The Roberts-Stabenow compromise does require companies to label GE foods, but it gives them wide berth in deciding exactly how they do it. In addition to words or icons on the packaging, companies can print a QR code on the package that consumers can scan for more information about the product. Smaller companies will also have the option of listing a phone number or URL instead.
Furthermore, the USDA will be put in charge of determining which foods are defined as bioengineered, and which are not—a provision that could leave many GE foods unlabeled and undermine the law altogether. As Eater reports this week, “gene-edited” foods produced by Monsanto, DuPont, and other biotechnology companies are not specifically mentioned in the Stabenow-Roberts bill and could be exempt from the labeling requirement, despite the fact that genes in the seeds have still been modified or removed to make them resistant to herbicides.
Closing or clarifying loopholes like these will be important to labeling advocates in the coming months as “a working group has already been established to begin the important work of crafting rules to properly and promptly implement the new law,” a USDA spokeswoman told POLITICO.
But working with the USDA to write the rules is only one front in the battle for GMO labeling. Because companies will have a choice in what they explicitly disclose on food packaging, consumers will have the opportunity to pressure those companies to do the right thing.
“What's next is broader than the USDA,” Jim Leahy, a lobbyist for Citizens for GMO Labeling, a grassroots group that has pushed for mandatory labels, also told POLITICO. “People are committed to a market strategy. Law or not, companies that don't disclose are going to pay a price for that with consumers.”
Needless to say, this battle is far from over—so stay tuned.
Illustration by Katherine Prendergast