Last Update: June 2, 2023
As early as this Wednesday or Thursday, the Senate could vote on whether to pass a compromised version of a bill that food makers and some members of Congress claim will make our food more transparent, but really would do the opposite. Spooked by a law in Vermont that makes mandatory the on-package labeling of genetically modified foods starting July 1, Big Food and some members of Congress have been working feverishly since last year to craft federal legislation to nullify the strong Green Mountain State bill.
After seeing versions of the bill—nicknamed the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act by opponents—defeated or blocked over the last year, a vote on a compromised piece of legislation is expected to take place Wednesday or Thursday. As Vermont celebrated the implementation of its GMO labeling bill Friday on the statehouse lawn, this week’s vote could rain on that parade, should a majority of Senators support it.
Why is the bill such a bad thing for food transparency? The bill would:
The bill would give food companies three options for providing consumers information on GMO ingredients: on-package labeling; on-package electronic labeling; or a symbol that would be devemloped by the Department of Agriculture. Presumably, most companies would choose to place an ambiguous, scannable QR code on the package instead of writing the words “made with GMO ingredients”—as the Vermont law requires—or even list a 1-800 number for consumers to call for more information.
Were companies to opt for putting a QR code on food packaging, only consumers with smartphones would be able to access additional information about what’s in a product—a requirement that “blatantly discriminates against low-income, rural, elderly and a disproportionately high number of minority Americans,” according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
Because the definition of bioengineering in this bill is so ambiguous and narrow, the FDA has stated that it “will likely mean that many foods from genetically engineered (GE) sources will not be subject to this bill.” Furthermore, the bill requires that for a product to qualify for mandatory labeling, it must be provable that a GMO product’s modification could not be achieved through conventional breeding or be found in nature—something near impossible to determine.
A federal labeling law would immediately cancel out the mandatory labeling legislation passed in Vermont, but it goes further than that by preemptively nullifying any future state or local laws concerning genetically engineered foods.
Almost 90 percent of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, young, old, and everything in between—favor mandatory GMO labeling. There have been virtually no studies proving the safety of foods made with genetically modified ingredients, and yet GMOs create the need to spray even more pesticides and herbicides on the food we eat. And those chemicals come with even more potential consequences. Last year, the World Health Organization labeled glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the United States, a “probable carcinogen.” The stakes are just too high, and if genetically modified ingredients are legal, American consumers should know when the food we eat contains them.
The bill has created a few unlikely bedfellows. Notably, a handful of labeling advocates have joined forces with food and biotech companies in support of the current bill, saying this is as good as we’re going to get. But numerous organic food and food safety organizations have remained steadfast in opposition to any federal law that does not require clear, on-package labeling of GE foods. Thirty-six major organic and food safety groups signed a letter this week authored by the Center for Food Safety opposing the bill. Some organic groups say the bill’s definitions of GE foods “could change important regulations governing the federal organic program including those prohibiting the use of genetic engineering in organic.”
Conversation of the bill has even reached the contentious race for the White House—a rarity for food policy legislation.
“This legislation is important because people have a right to know what is in the food they and their children eat,” Vermont Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wrote in an email to his supporters. “The more information we have, the better consumers we become. This is not a radical idea. It is why over 60 countries around the world have passed GMO labeling laws.”
Illustration by Foley Wu
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