For GMO Labeling Advocates, It Doesn’t Get Much Darker Than This

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This article was original published in Huffington Post.

By Carey Gillam

News Thursday that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and the committee’s ranking Senate Democrat Debbie Stabenow had finally sewn up a deal on nationwide GMO labeling left the food industry celebrating – but GMO labeling backers cursing – a law that will continue to leave consumers largely in the dark about the GMO content of their groceries.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the interests of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies and has been the chief architect of legislation to pre-empt Vermont’s mandatory labeling law, said Thursday that it “fully supports” the terms of the newly proposed legislation.

Senate Ag Democrats quickly took to social media to try to defend the deal, calling it a “win for consumers.” A prior measure pushed by Roberts, referred to by critics as Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the DARK Act,  was blocked by Senate Democrats in March.

But consumer advocates who were merely days away from seeing the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law implemented – set to take effect in Vermont on July 1 – said the bill was no better than the prior version, and they vowed to do all they could to block its passage.

“This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. “We are appalled that our elected officials would support keeping Americans in the dark about what is in our food and even more appalled that they would do it on behalf of Big Chemical and food corporations.

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.

To appease consumer concerns about GMOs, many national food companies have already started providing simple and clear on-package GMO labeling. But under the law now proposed, food companies could avoid any mention of genetic engineering on their packages and “disclose” GMO ingredients through digital codes rather than on-package language. Consumers would be directed to “scan here for more food information” with a smartphone to find information about the food they want to buy. Another option would allow food companies to provide a phone number along with language that states “call for more food information.”

And, while the Vermont law would be nullified immediately, the law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) two years to finalize a rule laying out the disclosure requirements. Food manufacturers defined as “very small” would be exempt from the disclosure requirement entirely.

The law provides no federal penalties for violations of the labeling requirements. It calls for the USDA to determine the amounts of GMO “substance that may be present in food” to be considered a bioengineered food. Foods that have meat, poultry, and egg products as main ingredients are exempted.

And, some consumer advocates say that a provision setting a definition of genetic engineering, or “bioengineering,” would be limited to such an extent that some interpretations might mean that foods made with herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans, the main GMO crops grown in the United States, would not be subject to the labeling requirements.

Consumer groups are vowing to blitz members of Congress with demands that they block the law, reminding them that this isn’t about politics – it’s about a consumer’s fundamental right to make an informed decision about the food they are buying for themselves and their families.

Many consumers worry that the genetically engineered crops on the market now carry potential and actual risks for human health and the environment. They worry that because most GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, which the World Health Organization has declared a probable human carcinogen, that GMO foods might contain dangerous levels of that pesticide. And they lack confidence in the regulatory and corporate entities that say those concerns are unsubstantiated even though the regulators require no independent safety testing of genetically engineered crops before they are commercialized for food.

The food and agrichemical and seed industry interests have brushed aside those concerns, and have acknowledged that they fear consumers will turn away from foods clearly labeled GMO in favor of non-GMO, natural or organic products.

Consumer advocates accused Stabenow of selling out consumer interests to appease food and big agriculture interests, such as Monsanto Co., the chief purveyor of GMO seed technology. But Stabenow defended the deal.

“For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients,” Stabenow said in a statement. “Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food.”

The Senate is in session next week and could take the bill up, while the U.S. House of Representatives is in recess until after the Fourth of July holiday. Consumer advocates promise not to let labeling go down without a fight.

“This is still completely unacceptable to the nine out of ten Americans who want to be able to understand what they are buying,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union. “It doesn’t give people the choice they want. What has to be done now is stop this bill from getting through the Senate.”

Will Senate Democrats Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory on GMO Labeling?

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Update June 27: A new “compromise” bill announced by Senator Stabenow is “completely unacceptable” and worse than the original bill, say consumer advocates. Read the latest news here.

By Stacy Malkan

Nearly 90% of Americans say genetically engineered food should be labeled, with high support across all ages, races and political affiliations, according to a December 2015 Mellman Group poll. It’s hard to think of a political issue that shares such broad appeal. Belief in our right to know what’s in our food is as American as apple pie.

Now, after a hard-fought battle led by millions of consumers and the nation’s largest environmental, health and consumer groups, we are winning that right. Large food companies from General Mills to Kellogg to Campbell’s have said they are putting labels on food products to indicate if they are produced with genetic engineering.

Is it possible to undo this progress? Could the new food labels actually roll back to the factories to be replaced by incomprehensible black blobs called QR codes?

Are Senate Democrats, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, about to make a deal that will stop GMO labeling in its tracks?

spaghettiosThe agrichemical industry is swarming the U.S. Senate right now with a last-ditch lobbying effort to pass the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, and thereby nullify state labeling efforts. They have just a few weeks left to get this done before Vermont implements the nation’s first mandatory GMO labeling law July 1.

The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act last year. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said at the time in a CNN op ed, “The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest.”

All eyes are now on Sen. Stabenow, who, according to the Hagstrom Report, just proposed new language for a “compromise.” This may or may not include QR codes, an 800 number, or some other way of claiming “mandatory” labeling while allowing food companies to remove the words “genetic engineering” from the new labels that are already on their way to a store near you.

Details on the compromise are murky. But one thing is clear: as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow holds the keys to decide whether or not Americans will finally get clear, on-package GMO labels that are already required in 64 other countries around the world.

Both sides are doing their best to influence her. As Politico reported, organic industry leaders held a fundraiser for Sen. Stabenow in March, just days before the last vote on the DARK Act, and organic industry leaders donated several thousand dollars to her campaign in 2015 and 2016.

A review of Federal Election Commission filings for donations to Sen. Stabenow’s campaign from corporations and trade groups over the past five years found little from the organic industry – just one donation from the Organic Trade Association in 2012 for $2,500.

Big food, chemical and agribusiness groups, meanwhile, donated well over $100,000 to her campaign in that time period, including a combined $60,000 from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Bayer and ConAgra.

Those corporations were among the top 10 donors to anti-labeling campaigns that spent over $100 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and California – using dirty tricks to do so, such as mailers from fake front groups, false claims in ads and voter guides, and the largest money laundering operation in Washington State election history.

Why are these companies so afraid to give Americans an informed choice about GMOs in our food?

Big agribusiness groups are sending the message that it’s none of our business what’s in our food and how it’s produced. Political cartoonist Rick Friday learned that lesson the hard way when he was recently fired from his job of 21 years at Iowa’s Farm News for pointing out in a cartoon that top executives at Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere made more money last year than 2,129 Iowa farmers.

What else don’t these companies want us to know about our food?

The fact is, most genetically engineered crops are engineered to survive chemical herbicides, which is great for chemical company profits but not so good for farmers and families in GMO-growing communities such as Hawaii, Argentina and Iowa – or for the rest of us who may be eating food every day that contains glyphosate, which was recently classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization’s cancer panel.

The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is now too loud to ignore.

State drives for GMO labeling succeeded in educating millions of people that our most important food crops have been genetically engineered with no transparency. Vermont’s labeling law is a victory for the nation and food companies are already well on their way to labeling GMOs for the first time in the U.S. history.

If the agrichemical lobby succeeds in pushing Democrats to accept a Dark Act deal that involves anything less than mandatory on-package labeling, Sen. Stabenow will be forever remembered for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for our right to know what’s in our food.

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.

Clock is Ticking on GMO Labeling Issue

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After years of state-by-state battles over consumer calls for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), time is quickly running out for the agribusiness and food manufacturing industries working to block such labeling.

The threat that ticking clock holds for the food industry was underscored Tuesday in a hastily held meeting of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. With less than an hour of discussion, members voted 14-6 to move forward with legislation that would prohibit state GMO labeling laws, notably one set to take effect July 1 in Vermont. Other states are considering similar laws.

The measure preempts “any state or political subdivision law relating to the labeling of whether food or seed is genetically engineered or developed or produced using genetic engineering” and “authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations establishing a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.”

The measure also outlaws any “express or implied claims regarding safety or quality based on whether food is or is not bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering…”

Many of the senators in Tuesday’s meeting cited the notion that something had to be done quickly before Vermont’s labeling law takes effect.

“We’re running out of time,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. She was one of three Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote for the bill –  She and other ag committee members said the bill needs work – “compromise” – before it can pass the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the bill’s sponsor, has been working with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, to find a compromise that could pass the full Senate.

Compromise may be hard to come by. Consumer advocates for what has become known as the “Right to Know” movement across the country see labeling on a voluntary basis as little more than a slap in the face to millions of consumers who have concerns about the health and environmental impacts of GMO crops, and want to know if GMOs are used in the food they buy and consume. And nullifying a law already passed in Vermont only adds to the insult to voters and consumers.

“It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont’s citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

Those who want to see mandatory labeling say that among their concerns about GMO foods is a worry that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely used on genetically modified crops, is harmful to human health. Residues of the pesticide have been detected in foods, and a World Health Organization research unit earlier this year said glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.

In the meantime, the food and agribusiness fear of labeling, and the efforts to scare consumers over the issue, only promises to heat up. Ironically, the food industry doesn’t just admit that they fear consumers will turn away from GMO foods if they are labeled; the industry embraces that fear as a central theme.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a chief backer of the legislation and other food industry backers warn that if labeling is required, consumers will turn away from GMO foods in droves, meaning farmers who grow GMO crops – the bulk of which are corn and soy –  will suffer and food costs will soar. They give little to no nod to farmers who grow a multitude of other organic or conventional crops.

In a blog published Tuesday in The Hill,  Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said: “Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques… If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.”

The measure now heads to the full Senate where passage is expected to be tricky. Sixty votes will be required to overcome a filibuster, and both senators from Vermont – Sen Patrick Leahy and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders – promise to oppose the law.

The GOP-backed bill would “move production methods into the shadows” and “give agriculture a black eye,” Leahy told The Hill. “The legislation undermines the public’s right to know.”

Stabenow has been quoted saying that if the law is to pass the Senate, “it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices.”

A similar measure backed by Republicans was passed last July by the U.S. House of Representatives, 275-150. Only 45 Democrats voted for the bill.

Kimbrell said on Tuesday that supporters of mandatory labeling would be pushing senators to vote against the bill.

“The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement,” Kimbrell said.