Perhaps you’ve noticed the words “produced with genetic engineering” on food packages in your grocery store. Many large food companies have instituted their own labeling policies for genetically engineered foods ahead of the July 1 deadline for Vermont’s mandatory, on-package GMO labeling law. But after months of political wrangling, leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have reached an agreement in a last-ditch effort to preempt the Vermont law.
Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have joined together on a bill that would nullify Vermont’s law and allows food manufacturers to use a scannable QR code, or in some cases a toll-free number, to inform consumers about a product's GMO content. While the bill would immediately block states from carrying out GMO labeling laws, it would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take two years to set a standard for mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients through the manufacturer’s choice of regular text, a symbol, or the use of a QR code or phone number.
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says the new bill could make it nearly impossible for consumers to make informed choices about what they’re putting into their shopping cart if it passes the Senate and then the House of Representatives.
“This bill falls far short, and doesn’t meet consumer needs at all,” says Halloran. “Consumers have stated their preference for on-package mandatory GMO labeling that they can use at a glance, and they deserve to know what’s in their food.” In addition, according to the bill, not all genetically engineered foods would be considered genetically engineered for labeling purposes, Halloran notes. It excludes, for example, highly refined sugars and oils.
The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), which has sued to block Vermont’s law, has been pushing Congress to set a national GMO labeling standard that would include voluntary GMO labeling and prevent any state from enacting its own GMO labeling law.
The GMA is backing the legislation, saying that it "enables transparency, clarity and consistency in disclosure and reflects the wide variety of ways that consumers will get this information about the foods they buy.”
Yet nearly 90 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods, according to a recent poll of 800 registered voters commissioned by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups, including Consumers Union. Additionally, fully one-third do not own smartphones capable of scanning digital codes, which would leave large swaths of Americans completely in the dark, Halloran says.
Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Mars are among the companies that have said they will implement GMO labeling policies nationwide, rather than labeling their products just for Vermont. But now it’s unclear if they will follow through with their promised policies if the new law passes. “Many of these companies say they are voluntarily labeling GMOs to increase transparency,” Halloran says. “I hope they really mean it.”
The bill still needs to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote, which may take longer than its supporters would like, as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has placed a hold on the bill. The bill will need 60 Senators in support to bring it to the floor. In addition, the House of Representatives would also need to vote, and the House won’t meet to vote again until July 5. While that means the federal bill won’t be enacted before the Vermont deadline, Congress could still pass the bill in July and nullify the Vermont law after it’s taken effect.
Halloran says that Consumers Union will be watching the bill’s movement closely and will be urging the Senate not to pass it. If you agree, you can send your senators a message here.
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