by Derrick Broze, Activist Post:
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture works to establish a uniform national standard for labeling foods that may be genetically engineered, critics continue to call out the dangers of putting the federal government in charge of the situation. The federal government was first granted this authority in July 2016 when former President Obama signed into law a bill which amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the national standard for labeling GE foods. The bill was hailed as a victory for activists, and a boost for the economy as it would help keep food costs down for low income families. Unfortunately, the bill was neither.
Instead, the bill denied states and localities the right to choose how to label food that has been genetically engineered and gave the power to label the food to a government with well-known close relationships to the biotechnology industry, including Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and others. Evidence that it was not a wise idea to give the U.S. government authority over labeling genetically engineered crops has already appeared as reports indicate that a large number of crops may be exempt from labeling.
In early May, the Department of Agriculture released a draft rule describing how the labeling law is supposed to be implemented. Between May and July 3, the USDA received 14,008 public comments. The comments indicate that some of the public is concerned about the language used in the rule. “The term bioengineered should not be used. It is both misleading and confusing to consumers. GMO, GE or Genetic Engineering should be used instead,” one commenter writes. “Please make all food items labeled correctly as GMO so consumers know exactly what they are purchasing,” another said.
The Environmental Working Group reports that if companies want to label foods which are made with genetically engineered ingredients, they must use the words “bioengineered” or “bioengineered food ingredient,” instead of the widely known phrases “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered.” Interestingly, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently conducted a survey to see how people respond to these different labels, including new symbols being tested by the USDA. The IFIC found that in every combination of label, the level of concern among consumers increased. In the survey consumers were shown bottles of canola oil without any label, with one of three symbols (plant, sun, or smile), with a symbol plus “bioengineered” on the label, and a symbol with “may be bioengineered” on the label.
Thirty one percent of consumers had health concerns about the bottle without any labeling. That concern rose to 50 percent with the bioengineered plant symbol and to 51 percent when the “bioengineered” text was added. The majority of the respondents who expressed concerns about genetically engineered foods did so because of fears about human health.
In addition, the rule may exempt foods produced with GMOs if the food products contain highly refined GMO sugars and oils. The Environmental Working Group conducted an analysis of the ingredients-level information of more than 105,000 food products and found that as many as 58,377 food products contain a highly refined sugar or oil that is likely produced with genetic engineering, like beet sugar or canola oil. Around 11,000 of these (nearly one in six) only contain a highly refined sugar or oil produced with genetic engineering and would be exempt from labeling. According to the new proposal, a food product need not be labeled if genetically engineered ingredients make up less than five percent of the product’s total weight.
“Among the other possible GMO ingredients EWG identified that are not highly refined sugars and oils, are dozens of ingredients used as thickening agents, colorants, flavorings, emulsifiers and binders that are derived from highly adopted GMO crops like corn and soybeans,” the EWG wrote. “And many of these ingredients often appear in low levels at the bottom of ingredient lists, meaning that in combination, the GMO ingredients in thousands of foods could fall below a 5 percent exemption.”
Also, the USDA has yet to address how customers without smartphones or those with bad cell service will access digital labels, such as QR codes, which companies are allowed to use under the new law.
“When Congress passed the first-ever national GMO food disclosure law in 2016 – and blocked states from passing or enforcing their own labeling laws – lawmakers promised consumers a disclosure system that would cover more ingredients and be simple to use. But the draft rule proposed by the USDA could exclude almost three fourths of products with genetically engineered ingredients,” stated Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs of the EWG.
The Roots of Today’s GE Labeling Fight
To understand the current battle for labeling genetically engineered foods you must look back to 2015. At that time, the controversial Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act passed the House in June 2015 before ultimately failing amid heavy opposition. To critics, the bill was known as the “DARK” (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act because the law was also aimed at nullifying GMO labeling measures, such as a state labeling bill passed in Vermont. Mike Pompeo, author of the bill, criticized mandatory labeling laws as unnecessarily costly and insisted a federal standard was the answer.
In late February 2016, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts introduced another bill which attempted to create a federal voluntary standard for labeling GE food. Roberts’ Senate Bill 2609, or the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act, would have blocked mandatory labeling efforts by states. In March 2016, the bill failed to reach the 60 votes needed during a procedural vote, with 49 votes in favor and 48 votes against. However, by July 2016, the labeling measure was added to the National Sea Grant College Program Act as the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. It was that measure which was ultimately signed into law by Obama, placing the USDA in charge of labeling America’s genetically engineered food supply.