By Kim Robson:
Regular visitors to Green Mom know that we’ve been following the issue of the relative safety and labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The United States is the world’s largest consumer of foods made with genetically altered ingredients. Many popular processed foods are made with soybeans, corn and other crops whose genetic traits have been manipulated, usually to make them uniformly attractive, resistant to insects and pesticides; and to give them long shelf lives.
On July 7th, the U.S. Senate passed new legislation that would finally require food labels to list genetically modified ingredients. The bill passed by an overwhelming margin, 63-30, and now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass.
New Mandatory GMO Labeling
GMO contents will be identified with words, pictures, or a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone. The bill was sponsored by Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), and represents the latest attempt to institute a national standard for transparency in GMO labeling. The food industry favors a nationwide standard because dealing with state-by-state inconsistencies could inflate the cost of labeling and distribution. But mandatory GMO labeling of any kind is still seen as a threat to Big Agribusiness, which spent millions of dollars lobbying against the bill.
“This bipartisan bill ensures that consumers and families throughout the United States will have access, for the first time ever, to information about their food through a mandatory, nationwide label for food products with GMOs,” said Stabenow.
Pros and Cons
Naturally, the bill has its supporters and detractors. Farmers are praising this bill, in a reversal of their earlier opposition when there was concern that labeling would stigmatize GMO crops and hurt demand for food containing GMO ingredients.
But critics like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) say the bill’s vague language and allowance for electronic labels that must be scanned could limit its scope and create confusion. “When parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating,” Sanders said on the Senate floor before the vote. At a news conference this week, he said that major food manufacturers have already begun voluntarily labeling products with GMO ingredients to meet a new law that farmers have opposed in his home state.
Another opponent of the bill, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), said its weak federal requirements would make consumers’ access information about GMOs virtually impossible.
“It’s fair to say that it’s not the ideal bill, but it is certainly the bill that can pass, which is the most important right now,” said Patrick Delaney, Director of Policy Communications at the American Soybean Association (ASA).
What Will Be Covered?
The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) will decide which ingredients should be considered genetically modified, but the vast majority of U.S. corn, soybeans and sugar crops are produced from genetically engineered seeds.
Ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil, which can be derived from genetically engineered crops but contain virtually no genetic material by the time they are processed, may not fall under the law’s definition of a bioengineered food. Also, GMO corn may be excluded because ofambiguous language, say critics.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issues with the involvement of the USDA, and sent a memo to the Senate Agriculture Committee detailing their concerns on June 27th. In a letter to Stabenow last week, the USDA’s general counsel addressed those worries, saying it would include commercially grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar and canola crops.