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Consumers want to know what’s in their food, and are pushing companies and politicians to act. After years of struggle, the required labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is one step closer to reality. The US senate just voted in favor of a bill that would require GMO labeling throughout the United States [1, 6]. Advocacy groups, however, are warning that the measure could do more harm than good.

In the senate bill, GM (genetically modified) foods will require either a statement of GM ingredients on the package, or a website, phone number, or QR code with link to ingredient warnings. There are no proposed penalties or fines for companies which don’t comply with the law, making compliance voluntary [2]. In addition, many processed ingredients created from GMOs would be exempt, such as oils and sugars, and any organic foods would automatically be able to carry the label “non-GMO” [7].

Why Now?

The EU has had GMO labeling requirements for years, but it’s been an uphill battle for consumer advocacy groups in the US. Food corporations, farmers, and the biotech industry were largely against any form of labelling, fearing that it would scare away consumers. Now, industry lobbyists are suddenly pushing for sweeping national legislation. What’s changed?

Two years ago, Vermont started a domino effect when they passed the nation’s first GMO labelling law, which will begin enforcement this month [3]. All GMO foods sold in Vermont now require labeling. Unlike the proposed federal regulations, Vermont’s GMO labelling law includes fines of up to $1,000/day per product not properly labelled, and non-compliant products must relabel within 30 days or face stricter penalties [3]. Also unlike the federal regulation, the Vermont law has appointed the state attorney general and consumers with specific rights to investigate and oversee the program. The Vermont law requires more specific wording (“partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering” or “produced with genetic engineering”) and importantly, it requires that they be printed on the packaging.

Since the signing of Vermont’s law, Connecticut and Maine have passed similar laws which will go into effect once more New England states opt in, and California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state put forward GMO labeling referendums which narrowly failed. In light of this momentum in state-legislated GMO labeling, industry lobbyists are pushing for the proposed national GMO labeling scheme to pacify consumers and head-off any stronger state laws [2, 5].

Consumer Groups Rally Against Weak Regulations

Consumer advocates are deeply concerned that the federal legislation might be unenforceable, noting that even stricter state laws already have their own loopholes for local industries. Take meat and cheese in Vermont, for example. Traditionally, cheese was produced through an enzymatic reaction requiring rennet from stomachs of baby calves. Now, much of the cheese produced in the US is catalyzed with a GM enzyme taken from fungus. Vegetarians and animal rights activists laud this as a giant achievement in cruelty-free food, but Vermont legislators were concerned consumers would be unnecessarily scared by the GMO labeling. The Vermont law side-steps this controversy by allowing cheese to remain unlabeled. Meat products from animals raised on GM crops are also excluded from the Vermont regulation.

Without any real enforcement or specific labeling rules, the current federal proposal is little more than an empty gesture for consumer advocates who argue that foods will inevitably escape labeling provisions and states will no longer have power to create tougher regulations [5]. The senate chambers themselves were in uproar last week, as protesters threw money from the balcony and accused legislators of allowing corporations to purchase legislation [1].

FDA Questions USDA Authority

The US Food and Drug Administration also issued a critical statement about the proposed federal legislation, calling out a number of troubling points [4]. Beyond the weak labeling requirements, the FDA was concerned that the US Department of Agriculture had been selected to enforce the regulations. Along with arguing for responsibility over regulating GMO labeling, the FDA cited that the USDA is concerned primarily with livestock, and would be ill-suited to carry out enforcement of a project of this magnitude.

Congress is Set to Decide

Before the senate’s bill can become law, it’ll have to pass the Republican-controlled Congress. Further changes to the legislation will be made and they’ll need to be reconciled by both houses before the end of the year.

Sources

  1. Strom, S. (2016, July 06). G.M.O. Labeling Bill Clears First Hurdle in Senate. New York Times. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from [source link]
  2. New York Times Editorial Board. (2016, July 06). A Flawed Approach to Labeling Genetically Modified Food. New York Times. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from [source link]
  3. Strom, S. (2016, June 30). G.M.O.s in Food? Vermonters Will Know. New York Times. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from [source link]
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016, June 27). FDA/HHS Technical Assistance on Senate Agriculture Committee draft legislation to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods (EDW16734). FDA/HHS. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from [source link]
  5. Halloran, J. (2016, July 01). Consumers Union letter to US Senate in opposition of S.764 to preempt state GMO labeling laws. Consumers Union. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from [source link]
  6. Charles, D. (2016, July 08). Senate Passes a GMO Labeling Bill that the Food Industry Likes. NPR. [source link]
  7. Co-author: Benita Lee
     

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