Two out of three Americans favor GMO labeling on food items. In fact, it’s more important to people than knowing if the food is organic, according to a 2014 AP-GfK poll.
But now that mandatory GMO labeling on food is getting closer, in the form of a federal bill, there is not a lot of rejoicing—especially from groups that have been pushing for labeling for years.
The bill, originated by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) would make food producers label for GMOs nationwide, but it would also ban states from creating their own labeling laws and would repeal any existing laws, such as the Vermont state GMO labeling law that went into effect on July 1.
Here are the main points of the labeling bill:
- The agriculture department would have two years to put the labeling requirement in action. That means no mandatory labeling for up to two years—not even in Vermont.
- Companies would be allowed to provide as little as a QR code on the packaging that would have to be scanned by the customer on a smartphone, which would then take them to a website that says whether the product contains GMOs or not. (Almost one in three American adults didn’t own a smartphone in a 2015 Pew Research Center poll.)
- Small producers would be allowed to list only a phone number where customers can get information on GMO content.
- Meat from farm animals raised on GMO feed would not have to be labeled GMO.
- Food produced with newer methods of genetic modification (like gene editing) wouldn’t have to be labeled, unless the modification can’t be found in nature or achieved through conventional breeding.
- There would be no repercussions for violators of the labeling, unless individual states establish their own penalties.
- States would be banned from creating their own GMO labeling laws and any existing laws, like the one in Vermont, would be nullified.
Consumers may be better off without any federal intervention, which is why protesters tried to disrupt the senate procedural vote on Wednesday. But, the bill passed the Senate on Thursday (63-30) and is expected to clear the House too.
- A sign hangs at a rally Friday July 1, 2016 in Montpelier, Vt., protesting a proposal by Congress that would allow companies to use computer labels to indicated whether a product has been made with the help of genetic engineering. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)
The Senate bill “probably isn’t enough for consumers who really want to know,” said Michael Roberts, who leads the food law and policy program at UCLA. “I think it leaves them a little short.”
Roberts pointed to a continuing trend for labelling even in the absence of federal legislation. Nine states have active GMO labeling bills and major food producers General Mills, Mars, and Kellogg, have already announced that they will label their products for genetically modified content—in response to the Vermont law.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a long time proponent of GMO labelling, supported the Senate bill, even though it stated it “doesn’t like” the option of QR codes for GMO labels.
Some other GMO labelling supporters took it as a betrayal of the movement.
But Roberts said it “may not be the case” that the organic industry’s interests align with the consumer on the labelling issue and the bill “is not a bad compromise for the organic trade.”
Indeed, OTA stressed to its members that the bill does a lot to protect the organic industry.
For example, it forbids products exempt from labeling, such as meat, to be labeled GMO-free. It also explicitly states that organic products can be labeled GMO-free.
“[O]ur mission is to advocate for organic at every step along the way,” OTA stated on its website. “If the legislation becomes law, at least we know organic will be protected in the process.”
Whole Foods Market recently tasted the wrath of GMO-conscious consumers after co-CEO Walter Robb spoke favorably about the federal legislation.
“I think it’s an incredible thing that Sen. Stabenow has put together with Sen. Robert, when you take a look at the atmosphere up there on Capitol Hill, that this much was accomplished together,” Robb, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival late last month.
“I think the way she’s put the bill together, which is to give manufacturers choices,” he said. “I think the marketplace and the customers will take it from here.”
Robb also praised the Vermont law, saying the Stabenow-Roberts bill wouldn’t have happened without the pressure from Vermont.
But, he criticized states passing their own laws in general, saying it “makes it difficult for manufacturers to be able to label and label to that different standard.”
Robb’s comments were met with furor from critics.
Multiple websites that support GMO labeling accused Robb of ditching the labeling movement, even alluding that Whole Foods was in cahoots with Monsanto—a dominant GMO producer in agriculture.
Soon enough, the comments started to accrue on the Whole Foods Facebook page. A common theme among the commenters—a threat to stop shopping at Whole Foods until the company clearly states opposition to the federal bill.
- In this June 24, 2015 photo, a shopper leaves a Whole Foods Market store in Union Square, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Whole Foods assured the commenters it’s not partnering with Monsanto in any way, but stopping short of voicing opposition to the bill.
On July 1, Robb responded to the backlash, saying his praise of Stabenow was for her ability to strike a bipartisan deal within the current atmosphere on the Hill.
He said Whole Foods’ position has always been to “support mandatory labeling of GMO foods through clear, on-package language, not QR codes or 1-800 numbers, which is our primary concern with the Stabenow-Roberts bill as currently written.”
Robb also said the current bill is at least better than the previous failed one that intended to make GMO labeling voluntary.
The grocery giant plans to have all products labeled for GMOs in 2018. But that’s hardly an edge if everybody labels by that time.
The Stabenow-Roberts bill would create an advantage for Whole Foods—its labeling would be better than QR codes.
But, the Facebook comments indicated that many consumers want the company to support labeling everywhere, not just in its own stores.
“They have been caught between a rock and a hard place,” said John Stanton, food marketing professor at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s University.
Stanton believes GMO labeling will eventually happen one way or the other.
Now, however, it seems there won’t be anything for up to two years and then we’ll need a smartphone to read it.