The safe and accurate food labeling act (If you feel like it)

The safe and accurate food labeling act (If you feel like it)

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The House of Representatives has passed HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, another one of those legislative titles that are the opposite of what the substance of the bill actually proposes. The Act, which still needs Senate approval and a presidential signature-neither of which are guaranteed-would establish uniform labeling standards at the federal level for foods containing genetically modified organisms-GMOs-as well as for GMO-free foods.

A key element of the Act is that it only requires food companies to participate voluntarily. Opponents of the Act, who see the chances of voluntary participation as slim to none, have labeled it the DARK Act, short for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.” In fact, as soon as the vote approving the Act was completed, one of its opponents actually proposed changing the name to the DARK Act. That went nowhere fast.

The Act is sort of like having voluntary speed limits, basically having the government say, "We suggest you go 15 miles per hour in this school zone but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

The Act voids any legislation passed by individual states requiring GMO labeling on food products. The move was particularly aimed at Vermont where just such a law has been enacted and is due to go into effect in July 2016. In addition, even though the Act may never become a law-pending Senate approval and a presidential signature-it has had a chilling effect on legislative efforts in other states where GMO labeling bills were moving forward. 

Even more distressing is a section of the Act that allows food companies to label their products as non-GMO even if it is produced with a genetically engineered processing aid or enzyme or if it is a meat or poultry product derived from animals fed GMO feed or given GMO drugs. This is clearly intended as a slap at the current gold standard for non-GMO foods, the Non-GMO Project Verification label. That organization’s verification process would not give approval to foods if the HR 1599 conditions applied. In this way the legislation undoes efforts by that part of the food industry that had made a commitment to providing concerned consumers with the products they want.

The effort to label GMO foods should be understood in large part as a substitute for trying to rein in the use of genetically modified seeds in the U.S. where some 80% to 90% of the corn, soybean, and cotton crops are produced from GM seeds. Given that well-entrenched situation, the foes of GMOs have focused on the labeling issue since trying to end the use of GM crops does not appear to have any likelihood of success.

For the most part the food industry, including the trade groups like the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the giant food corporations like PepsiCo, have prevailed in blocking the pro-labeling forces. The pro-labelers have staked out the position that people have a right to full disclosure on what’s in their food and also that the jury is still out on the potential danger to humans from consuming GMO foods. The first position is hard to disagree with unless you’re the food Grinch, but agreeing with it and then making disclosure voluntary is pretty lame. About the second point there is plenty of back and forth with the food industry point to decades of research that support the conclusion GMOs are safe to consume while labeling advocates can only say, “Yeah, well, maybe….”

Whatever your stance on the safety of GMOs it is safe to say that putting a “Contains GMOs” label on a food would suggest there is something wrong, maybe even dangerous about that product. Despite a disingenuous claim of “we only want people to be informed” that is, of course, one of the top goals of the pro-labeling side. It is also a prime argument used against labeling by the anti-labeling side, which is comfortable in the belief that GMOs are safe and that labeling will scare consumers for no good reason.

It is also safe to say that if you are a concerned consumer who wants to know if there are GMO ingredients in your food, you always have the option of assuming that anything NOT labeled organic or with a Non-GMO Project Verification label on it is a GMO product. You’ll just have to live with that because having a “Contains GMOs” label on any food products in the U.S. does not appear to be on the horizon for many, many years to come.

-- ByHoward Waxman