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Fight Senate Bill Seeking Voluntary GMO Labeling, Say Right to Know Advocates

Draft legislation an attempt to block Vermont’s mandatory labeling law that goes into effect on July 1

Big Ag’s effort to withhold information about the kind of food we put on our table continues. Now there’s a new bill in the Senate that seeks to preempt state or other local laws that would require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.

Photo of GMO Labeling ProtestPhoto by CT Senate DemocratsA new bill in the Senate would preempt state or other local laws requiring mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, including a Vermont labeling law that goes into effect in July.

Introduced last week by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, the draft legislation would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 by requiring the US Agriculture Department to set a national voluntary GMO labeling standard. It also requires the USDA to set up an education campaign providing “science-based information” to “address consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.”

The bill, which will be heard by the agriculture committee this Thursday, would also preempt any effort to pass a federal mandatory GMO labeling law. 

The draft legislation is clearly an effort to subvert the July 1 deadline when Vermont’s new law requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients goes into effect.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the food industry’s leading trade association that’s been opposed to mandatory labeling, says as much in its statement lauding the bill. 

“With Vermont’s mandatory labeling going into effect in July and other states considering their own laws, Congress must pass a national food labeling solution that offers farmers, families and food producers the certainty and access to the affordable and sustainable food supply they deserve.”

The trade group argues that piecemeal labeling laws introduced by states and local administrations would cause supply chain disruptions and production problems that would lead to a sizeable increase in grocery bills. But that’s an old and discredited argument. In fact, a Consumers Union report calculates that the median cost of labeling will likely be as low as $2.30 per person per year. 

A similar bill, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015,” seeking voluntary labeling was passed in the House by a 275-150 vote last July. Pro-labeling activists dubbed it the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act. Now, with the introduction of the twin bill in the Senate, some version of the DARK Act is one step closer to becoming law. 

Right-to-know advocates are calling on the public to oppose the bill and push for mandatory federal labeling of GMOs instead. 

“The food industry is once again attempting to scare consumers and legislators in order to get their way,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. “Campbell’s Soup has announced it will label all of its GE products, at no added cost to the consumer. If a company like Campbell’s can take this step to label their food accurately, then there is no reason the rest of the industry can’t follow suit.”

In fact, Campbell’s broke with the Grocery Manufacturers Association last month, announcing its support of a “federal legislation to establish a single mandatory labeling standard for foods derived from genetically modified organisms.” (Though it’s opposed to state-by-state labeling laws for being too messy and confusing.)

The GMA, meanwhile, has been sued by Washington State for an “egregious” plot to evade campaign-disclosure laws by hiding the identities of major corporations, including PepsiCo, Nestle and General Mills, which spent some $11 million to defeat that state’s GMO labeling ballot initiative in 2013.

Internal company documents show that the GMA set up its secret account apparently to avoid the type of criticism incurred by major food and agribusiness companies that spent $43 million in 2012 in California to defeat a GMO labeling initiative.

A 2015 analysis by the Environment Working Group shows that the food and agribusiness industry has been spending millions of dollars fighting GMO labeling initiatives across the country. In the past three years alone, it has spent more than $143 million to defeat state and federal GMO labeling legislation.

“Given all of the health and environmental concerns around GMOs, including the fact that Monsanto’s Roundup is classified as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ by the World Health Organization, it’s time for US politicians to start passing laws that protect consumers, not corporations,” Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association, said in a statement urging consumers to oppose the Senate bill.

What the industry seems to be failing to get here is that the more it fights consumers’ right to know, the more it makes them suspect that it has something bad to hide. 

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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