Congress recently approved a bill that would require food processors to tell consumers which products contain genetically modified ingredients. Unfortunately, the new bill has done nothing to quell the controversy surrounding GMOs and the public’s right to know what is in their food.
According to supporters, the bill takes important steps to address GMO labeling concerns for consumers. The bill's opponents say it is full of loopholes and exceptions and is unenforceable.
The push for a national labeling standard gained speed when the state of Vermont passed its own, stronger GMO labeling law that went into effect July 1. The food and agricultural industries oppose labeling, but would prefer a national standard, rather than a patchwork of state standards, if labeling becomes law. The new federal legislation would pre-empt state measures entirely.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, says this is only one of the reasons President Barack Obama should veto the legislation. “The requirement of how to disclose GMOs gives companies an option of putting words on the package, which we know that they don't want to do, or using things like a QR code, which we think is not acceptable, because lots of folks can't access that technology,” Lovera says.
A QR code is a type of barcode that is used primarily to provide access to information via a smartphone. Many people in poorer communities don’t have smartphones and would be unable to obtain this information.
The law has no enforcement provisions, either, says Lovera. “Usually when you write a law, you say, ‘This is what the penalties are,’” Lovera says. “There’s no penalty discussion in here. In fact, it explicitly states that USDA could not order a recall of a mislabeled product.” Supporters of the bill say companies that improperly label their products could be sued for fraud under state law, but critics say that is simply a dodge that will have no practical effect.
In addition, the law has a “terrible definition” of what a GMO is, which would leave a lot of products and ingredients uncovered, Lovera says. Crops are engineered to have a specific trait, like resistance to herbicides, but an FDA rule states that a product must contain a bioengineered ingredient that has a trait that can't be found in nature. “Lots of traits can be found in nature, they just can't necessarily be found naturally in these crops,” Lovera points out. “So this definition is incredibly worrisome and ... may leave a lot of foods unlabeled in any useful way.”
A recent report from the National Academies of Science found that GMOs are both safe and "no different from other foods.” This official scientific seal of approval gave GMO supporters hope that the argument over labeling could be put to rest. Unlikely.
“We think that the debate on safety is not over yet,” Lovera says. “We actually had a number of critiques of the National Academies paper, including some of the folks who helped write it, many of whom had financial ties to the biotechnology industry. So, we think the science conversation is not over.”
Moreover, Lovera says, if no one knows which foods contain GMOs, scientists won’t be able to track them if they suspect they might be causing health problems.
“This is a different way of producing food, and there are lots of reasons people might want to know about it,” Lovera says. “They might [even] like it and want to seek it out, [but] they need to know where it is. This is a really big fight over a very basic concept of just saying, ‘We used it or we didn’t,' and then letting people decide for themselves.”