June 27, 2016

 Senate Introduces Bill to Overturn Vermont’s Mandatory GMO Labeling Law in Favor of Watered-Down National Standard

 By Steven Hoffman


GMO labeling proponents were planning on celebrating on July 1 – the date when Vermont’s GMO labeling legislation became the first mandatory GMO labeling law of the land. The small state’s bold initiative protecting the consumer’s right to know compelled major national food brands including General Mills, Campbell Soup, Kellogg and others to announce they would label for GMOs not just in Vermont, but throughout the U.S.

Yet, just as we were beginning to see actual GMO labeling disclosures on food packages across the country as a result of Vermont’s labeling law (see photo, below), a new proposed GMO labeling bill introduced in the U.S. Senate just hours before the Fourth of July holiday recess seeks to overturn Vermont’s new law and ban states from ever passing GMO labeling laws altogether.

Unlike Vermont’s law that requires plain English text on the ingredient panel, the Senate bill – the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard – introduced 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 option of placing QR code symbols or toll-free numbers on packages instead of plain English text to disclose if GMO ingredients are present. Those using QR codes or “smartlabels” would have to add a phrase such as “Scan here for more food information,” but 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.

Loophole, Loopholes and More Loopholes

In another concession to the biotech industry, the Senate bill would tightly define genetic engineering to include only recombinant DNA techniques, which involve transferring a gene from one organism to another different species. As such, all new biotechnology methods, such as CRISPR and gene editing, would be exempt from the national disclosure standards.

Milk or meat from animals fed GMO feed would be exempt from labeling for GMOs, and similarly food sold in a restaurants “or similar food retail establishment” would not have to label for GMOs.

Additionally, according to the Senate bill’s language, foods that have been refined to have the DNA removed would not be subject to any GMO labeling requirements, including 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.

The Stabenow/Roberts bill also omits a provision of House bill H.R. 1599 (dubbed by GMO labeling proponents as the DARK Act) that would require FDA to define the use of the word “natural” on food labels but leave it to the agency whether to allow genetically engineered ingredients.

Regarding penalties for non-compliance, while Vermont’s GMO labeling law calls for a stiff fine of $1,000 per day per product, there is no such penalty under the Senate bill. If the Stabenow/Roberts bill passes, 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. States, however, could impose fines for violations of the standards under state consumer protection rules, reported Successful Farming.

The GMO Labeling Standard that Isn’t

Basically, by pre-empting Vermont’s law immediately, along with calling for a two-year delay in any implementation of a national standard – along with loopholes so big you could drive a truck through them – the Senate bill is the federal mandatory GMO labeling standard that isn’t, critics decry.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin criticized the two-year delay and pre-emption of Vermont’s law, among other provisions proposed in the bill, 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. “Indeed, this watered-down legislation is a world away from the rigorous protocols required of any product bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified label.”

“This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect — a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and organic food company Stonyfield Farm, in a June 23 statement issued from Just Label It.

“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 online and on-the-ground members.

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 clearly display a “non-GMO” label on their products.

Announcing that the bill “would for the first time require mandatory GMO labeling nationwide,” OTA said, “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 market place.”

In defending OTA’s position to endorse the Stabenow/Roberts bill, “A compromise bill was happening with or without us,” wrote OTA CEO Laura Batcha and Chair Melissa Hughes in a June 27 letter to membership.

“This legislation isn’t nearly perfect,” Batcha and Hughes continued. “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.”

“Saving the Biotech Industry”

Sen. Roberts, in an interview, said that the bill would “save” the agriculture biotech industry from being denigrated by opponents. “We have not only saved it we have protected it,” he said. “We have to do that. How are you going to feed 8.5 billion people down the road if you don’t have agricultural biotechnology?” Roberts said the electronic code link would let industry provide detailed educational materials on the safety of GMOs to educate consumers. Small manufacturers could use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy the requirements, he said.

Sen. Stabenow said the bill is a “win for consumers and families. For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.”

With Congress in recess, the bill’s introduction came too late to prevent Vermont’s GMO labeling law from going into effect on July 1.

Sen. Roberts said he has talked with Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), co-sponsor of HR 1599, which calls for banning state GMO labeling laws and voluntary labeling over mandatory labeling of GMOs. H.R. 1599 passed the House in July 2015. Speaking of his discussion with Conaway in Bloomberg News, Roberts said, “He thinks this is the best possible bill under the circumstances in the Senate knowing we have to get 60 votes. But I don’t’ know that I can get 60 votes to go to conference.”

Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural, providing brand marketing, PR, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. He served as Marketing Director for the Arrowhead Mills organic brand, is the former Editorial Director of Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine, former Education Director of Natural Products Expo East and West, and co-founder of LOHAS Journal. Contact steve@compassnatural.com