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Commentary: Don't Be Fooled by the Senate's GMO Fake Labeling Bill

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By Steven Hoffman, Managing Director, Compass Natural

Don't Be Fooled by the Senate's GMO Fake Labeling Bill

“If you already belong to the more than 90% of Americans who want food produced with GMOs to be clearly labeled, then call your Senator today at 888.897.0174 and tell them to vote AGAINST the GMO fake labeling bill." – Former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich

BOULDER, CO (June 29, 2016) – Pro-GMO labeling supporters were planning on celebrating on July 1 – the date when Vermont’s GMO labeling legislation becomes the first mandatory GMO labeling law of the land.

The state’s bold initiative protecting the consumer’s right to know compelled major food companies including General Mills, Campbell Soup, Kellogg and others to announce they would label for GMOs not just in Vermont, but throughout the U.S., just like they have to do in 64 other countries.

Instead, just as we were beginning to see actual GMO disclosures in plain English on food packages across the country as a result of the Vermont law (see photo, right, taken in a Colorado supermarket), a new proposed GMO labeling bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on June 23 seeks to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law and ban states from ever passing GMO labeling laws altogether.

Unlike Vermont’s law that requires plain English on the ingredient panel, the Senate bill – the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard – introduced just one day before the Fourth of July holiday recess by ranking Senate agriculture committee members Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) – calls for a watered-down national standard that would offer manufacturers the voluntary option of placing cryptic QR code symbols linking to websites or toll-free numbers on packages instead of plain English text to disclose if GMO ingredients are present.

Those using QR codes or “smartlabels” instead of English text would have to add a phrase such as “Scan here for more food information,” but they would not be required to use the term “GMO” or “Genetic Engineering” on the label – a key point to which GMO labeling proponents strongly object.

Loopholes, Loopholes and More Loopholes
In concession after concession to the biotech industry, the Senate bill also would:

  • Tightly define genetic engineering so that all new untested biotechnology methods, such as CRISPR and gene editing, would be exempt from national disclosure standards.
  • Foods refined to have the DNA removed would be exempt from any GMO labeling requirements, such as refined sugar from GMO sugar beets, corn syrup from GMO corn and oil from GMO canola, William Hallman, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, told Food Navigator USA.
  • Milk or meat from animals fed GMO feed would be exempt from GMO labeling; similarly food sold in a restaurant “or similar food retail establishment” would not be required to label for GMOs.
  • While Vermont’s GMO labeling law calls for stiff noncompliance penalties of $1,000 per day per product, there is no such penalty under the Senate bill. USDA would have no authority to require recalls of products that don’t comply with the labeling requirements, and there would be no federal penalties for violations.

“A World Away” from Protecting Consumers
By pre-empting Vermont’s law immediately, along with calling for a two-year delay in any implementation of a national standard – combined with loopholes so big you could drive a truck through them – the Senate bill is the federal GMO labeling standard that isn’t.

  • Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin criticized the two-year delay and pre-emption of Vermont’s law, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said he would do "everything I can" to defeat it. “People have a right to know what is in the food they eat," Sanders said in a statement.
  • “While much has been made of the significant problems with the type of labeling proposed in this bill (QR codes, 800 numbers and websites), an equally big problem is that the bill is filled with huge loopholes, meaning that most GMO products could escape any sort of labeling at all, Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate told Food Navigator USA. “Indeed, this watered-down legislation is a world away from the rigorous protocols required of any product bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified label.”
  • “Senators Stabenow and Roberts reached a deal that tramples on the rights of consumers, and the rights of states like Vermont to protect their own citizens. Instead, the Senate appears poised to pass a bill clearly intended to serve the interests of Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association,” said Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association, representing 2 million active online and on-the-ground members.
  • “The U.S. Senate, through the munificent campaign contributions of the chemical and bio-tech industry, has brought forth a new anti-labeling bill aimed at squashing Vermont’s GMO labeling initiative which goes into effect next week,” said Dennis Kucinich, former U.S. Representative and staunch GMO labeling advocate, in anopen letter to constituents. “It is not a labeling bill. There is no requirement for labeling in the bill. It is not mandatory. All provisions of the bill are optional,” he said.
  • “This new bill is a tremendous blow to the food movement and America’s right to know, and is in many ways worse than prior iterations of the DARK Act that were defeated,” said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safey. “The bill is a grossly negligent attempt to preempt the democratic decision-making of states like Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Alaska. It is a corporate giveaway by Senators Stabenow, Roberts and Heitkamp who have received hundreds of thousands in donations from the biotech companies. This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill.”
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urged senators to oppose the Stabenow/Roberts GMO labeling bill, reported Politico Pro (subscription required). In a June 28 speech on the Senate floor, Merkley said the bill "does not give a consumer-friendly label; it instead sends people off through a maze of websites and phone numbers not in any way practical to a shopper in a store."

OTA Defends Its Endorsement
In a concession to the organic industry, prompting a controversial endorsement of the Stabenow/Roberts bill from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), producers who have secured a Certified Organic designation from USDA would be allowed to display a “non-GMO” label on their products.

Announcing that the bill “would for the first time require mandatory GMO labeling nationwide,” OTA said in a statement, “This legislation includes provisions that are excellent for organic farmers and food makers – and for the millions of consumers who choose organic every day – because they recognize, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the marketplace.”

In defending OTA’s position to “applaud” the Stabenow/Roberts bill, “A compromise bill was happening with or without us,” wrote OTA CEO Laura Batcha and Board President Melissa Hughes in a June 27 letter to its membership. (Hughes also serves as General Counsel for organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley.)

“This legislation isn’t nearly perfect,” Batcha and Hughes stated. “Some critics say it is a victory for big agriculture and big corporate interests. We understand how some may be fundamentally dissatisfied with this compromise solution, especially as it includes an option to reveal the presence of GMOs through technology that would require a smartphone and Internet access. OTA doesn’t like that option, and we are urging all companies, faced with the choice of how to disclose GMO ingredients, to choose to print a simple and clear statement of GMO content on the product label.”

But Why Throw Vermont Under the Bus?
Three leading voices in the "healthy" food sector also urged support for the Senate's bipartisan compromise on GMO labeling, reported Politico Pro on June 27 (subscription required). During a panel at the 2016 Aspen Ideas FestivalWalter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, Jeff Dunn, president of Campbell Fresh, and Sam Kass, a former White House adviser who now works with food companies, all praised Sens. Roberts and Stabenow for coming to an agreement on a national solution.

"It's not perfect, but it's progress, not perfection," said Dunn, who noted that Campbell's was the first major food company to voluntarily label its products. "It's a step in the right direction."

Robb said it was an "incredible thing" that the senators came together and compromised during a dysfunctional time. He said he hopes that lawmakers can soon move on to other things. "What we need to do is get onto the farm bill and talk about much bigger issues," Robb said.

Kass said he'd prefer on-pack labels, but argued that advocates got 75% of what they wanted and the deal should be supported.

But why? We had 100% of what we wanted with clear, mandatory, on-pack, English language labeling in the Vermont law - a straighforward law that was already compelling companies to label for GMOs across the nation. The Senate bill would kill that in favor of a loophole-ridden, voluntary-driven regulation that would favor corporations, not consumers.

DARK Act 2.0
“Kass said he'd prefer on-pack labels, but argued that advocates got 75% of what they wanted and the deal should be supported. According to this logic, we should support the fact that women earn 77 cents on the dollar. 77%. Go the distance for 100% for all Americans. Do both. On-pack and QR codes,” said noted author and consumer advocate Robyn O’Brien in a social media post about the Aspen Institute panel. O'Brien calls the Senate bill the "DARK Act 2.0" in her most recent blog post.

"The chief objection is that while the bill nullifies Vermont’s law, and any other similar state labeling efforts, it also allows companies to avoid the main thing consumers have demanded – a fast and easy way to determine if a food product they are purchasing was made using genetically engineered crops," O'Brien wrote.

Asking time-pressed moms – 93% of whom want GMO labeling, by the way – to photograph QR codes in stores that will take them to company websites to find out if a product they want to buy for their families contains GMOs isn't going to work.

Asking the big brands to pretty please fess up on GMOs isn’t going to work, either. It never has. Voluntary on-pack GMO labeling has been in place for decades. Same lipstick, same pig.

Don’t be fooled by the Stabenow/Roberts compromise. Vermont is the labeling law we want, in plain English.

Or as Dennis Kucinich urges, call your Senator today at 888.897.0174 and tell them to vote AGAINST the Stabenow/Roberts GMO fake labeling bill.




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