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US closer to national GMO labels

7th July 2016

Agricultural groups in the US have welcomed the passing of a new national labelling standard for foods containing genetically modified ingredients that will override state laws. However, consumer groups are less thrilled, criticizing the bill for allowing information to be “hidden”, which has led some opponents to label it the DARK act.

The law doesn’t require the printing of “GMO” on food packaging. Instead it offers food manufacturers three options for disclosure: text on the packaging, a symbol, or an electronic link that would direct consumers to a website for more information. Small companies even have the option to leave a phone number or a URL where consumers can access information – if they want. The bill also explicitly states that bioengineered foods will not be treated as safer or less safe than non-bioengineered foods. It states that an animal would not be “considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance”. The definition of genetic engineering within the legislation has also been tightened – in ways the biotech industry wanted – and doesn’t include new techniques such as gene editing.

The implementation of Vermont’s labelling laws on 1 July gave impetus to the bill’s passage. Vermont’s GMO rules – which were themselves inconsistent and confusing – forced food manufacturers to align packaging in all 50 states to comply, while some companies such as Coca Cola and Pepsi abandoned the state altogether. With exemptions from labelling such as cheese and various meat products, the implementation of Vermont’s law has prompted confusion and concern amongst the state’s retailers and food distributors, resulting in shortages of staple items including infant formula.

The prospect of a looming “hodge podge” of individual state and local laws on GMO labelling made some form of federal labeling preemption essential according to William Lesser, a science and business professor at Cornell University. However, he says taking the information off the label provides less than ideal access to information “Many food consumers will simply not take the time needed to inform themselves about the ingredients of the many food items they purchase.”

While the national GMO labelling laws will be less stringent than Vermont’s, the implementation task is still not an easy one.  The USDA has two years to write rules, required because of food production complexities. For example, when a majority of a product is made with meat, no GMO label would be required. In the case of a pepperoni pizza, for instance, a label would be needed if the flour in the crust came from GMO grain, according to Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, who helped craft the bill.

Following the passing of the legislation in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and with support from the House Agriculture Committee, Republican Mike Conaway, President Obama is expected to sign off. Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers’ Federation (NMPF) said, “We strongly urge President Obama to sign this legislation into law. Once this process is complete, we can begin moving beyond specious arguments over labels, terminology and absence claims, and work to address real food safety and nutrition issues, and further the sustainability of our food system.”

While the food and agriculture industries might claim a victory with the new laws, it’s unlikely to address the concerns of anti-GMO activists and some consumers who are convinced the benefits of genetic engineering only accrue to corporate farmers and big pesticide companies like Monsanto. It seems no amount of scientific evidence will convince them that GMOs are safe to eat, so the latest move to make labelling less prescriptive and information arguably less accessible, will only add to their mistrust. Marketers will do the rest. According to market research firm Mintel, nearly 17% of new food products introduced in the US last year carried a non-GMO label, up from less than 3% in 2011. Just over half of the consumers surveyed in a recent Mintel survey said they seek out non-GMO products.