Senate Making Last-Ditch Attempt to Suppress GE Labeling

In an effort to block the impending implementation of Vermont’s genetically engineered (GE) food labeling law, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MO) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) have struck a deal aimed at continuing to keep consumers in the dark about the ingredients in the food they eat. Vermont’s law, signed on May 8, 2014 by Governor Peter Shumlin (D), is set to go into effect on July 1, 2016. After the state defeated a legal challenge brought by the Grocery Manufacturers of American and other industrial food companies, opponents pivoted their efforts to Congress, where they pushed for the so-called DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act, which would have codified a voluntary labeling system nationwide and preempted Vermont’s law. The DARK Act was passed through the House, yet failed to secure enough votes in the Senate.


Despite Senator Stabenow voting against the DARK Act earlier this year, she has now reached a DARK deal that, in effect, would continue to deny Americans important information about the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in the food we eat. While proponents this DARK deal say it will require a mandatory national labeling scheme, the Senate bill includes no mandatory standards. Instead, it preempts Vermont’s law through a discretionary process that will be determined by a future Secretary of Agriculture. It also does very little to ensure consumers will actually have access to this information because the bill would allow for a range of labeling options that will not warn consumers – quick response (QR) codes, 800 numbers, websites and on-package labeling.

This approach leaves poorer Americans at a disadvantage in receiving this information, as QR code labels require the use of a smartphone to read. Allowing food companies to decide how to label all but ensures they will work to misinform the public about their products; we have already seen big food links to websites that extol the safety of GE foods. The bill also contains a very weak definition the term “biotechnology” that may permit exemptions for a number of genetically engineered foods. There are no penalties for companies that do not comply with the conditions of the law. If passed, the bill would create a toothless, national charade and instantly extinguish forever the strong GE labeling laws passed overwhelmingly in recent years across New England.

Despite the illusion of compromise from members of the Senate, Vermont Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has indicated he will make every effort to stop the DARK Deal from passing. “I am very proud that Vermont has led the country in GMO labeling,” he said in a statement published on his Senate website. “This bill would preempt what Vermont and other states have done. GMO labeling exists in dozens of countries around the world. It is not controversial. Already major food companies in our country have begun labeling their products. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat. I am going to do everything I can to defeat this legislation.”

An alternative approach to federal labeling, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act (S.2621), led by Senators Jeff Merkley (OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requires that all consumer food packaging visibly display GE ingredient labeling. While ensuring nationwide labeling, the legislation would preempt states from requiring labeling, such as a warning, which is stronger than the language in the legislation. Beyond Pesticides beleives it is important that even a positive, mandatory labeling requirement not preempt states from setting a higher bar regarding information provided on GE ingredients in food.

Beyond Pesticides believes that consumers have a right to know whether the foods they buy contain GE ingredients, not only because of concerns over the safety of eating GE food, but also because of the direct and indirect effects of GE agriculture on the environment, wildlife, and human health. GE agriculture is associated with the increased use of herbicides –particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup– that crops are developed to tolerate. In light of findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a human carcinogen based on laboratory animal test data, consumers have even more cause for concern about the health risks that these products pose. See Beyond pesticides Genetic Engineering program page for more information on GE agriculture and alternatives to this toxic system of food production.

The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation before July 1st. Let your Senators know you’re paying close attention to this issue, and demand the right to know what’s in your food.

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