Food

Why the GMO Labeling Bill Obama Just Signed Into Law Is a Sham—and a National Embarrassment

The discriminatory bill exempts Big Food from putting GMO labels on food packages and keeps consumers in the dark.

Rally to Support GMO Food Labeling Connecticut State Senate leaders joined a rally of consumer advocates at the State Capitol to announce plans to bring bipartisan legislation concerning public health and food safety to a vote in the Senate. Senate Bill 802 as amended by the Senate to include GMO product labeling received support from Senate President Donald Williams, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, Public Health Committee co-chair Senator Terry Gerratana, Childrens Committee co-chair Senator Danté Bartolomeo, and Senators Beth Bye and Cathy Osten in addition to many members of the House. (May 21, 2013)
Photo Credit: CT Senate Democrats/Flickr CC

It is known as the DARK Act—Denying Americans the Right to Know. It was signed by President Obama last Friday in the afterglow of the Democratic National Convention, without fanfare or major media coverage. The bill’s moniker is apt. With a few strokes of his pen Obama scratched out the laws of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine that required the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

He also nullified the GE seed labeling laws in Vermont and Virginia that allowed farmers to choose what seeds they wanted to buy and plant. And for good measure he preempted Alaska’s law requiring the labeling of any GE fish or fish product, passed to protect the state’s vital fisheries from contamination by recently approved genetically engineered salmon.  

The White House justified the DARK Act’s massive onslaught on local democracy on the grounds that the bill would create national standards for labeling of GE foods. It does nothing of the sort. According to Obama’s own Food and Drug Administration, if enacted, the bill would exempt most current GMO foods from being labeled at all. The FDA further commented that it “may be difficult” for any GMO food to qualify for labeling under the bill. And for any GE foods that might be covered, the bill allows for food to be “labeled” through a digital system of QR codes that can only be accessed if the consumer has a smartphone and reliable internet connectivity

Unfortunately for one-third of Americans, it seems President Obama does not know the digital divide is real. More than 50 percent of America’s poor and rural populations—a disproportionate number of which are minority communities—and more than 65 percent of the elderly don’t even own smartphones, and for those that do, many cannot afford monthly payments, or live in areas lacking internet access. A minimum of 100 million Americans will not have access to food information because of this labeling system.

Reverend Jesse Jackson understood this. He wrote a letter to the president urging a veto and saying that the bill raised “serious questions of discrimination” and left “unresolved matters of equal protection of the law.” Do all Americans have rights in an increasingly digital society? Or will they be discriminated against because they have limited means?

Adding insult to discriminatory injury, the bill also allows for labeling through 800 numbers and websites. The idea that Americans can spend hours in the supermarket calling or searching websites to find out if each and every product they buy is genetically engineered is absurd. It's just another way to masquerade non-labeling.

The president refused to listen to his own FDA, a majority of the Democratic members of the Senate, hundreds of thousands of comments from the public and the pleas of civil rights leaders, and signed a discriminatory phony labeling bill aptly dubbed by Senator Barbara Boxer “a sham and an embarrassment.” 

How did this train wreck of a bill even reach the president’s desk in the first place? The answer is a sad commentary on the corruption seen far too often in our federal legislature. The DARK Act was not subject to any hearings. No expert testimony was taken. Rather, it was the result of backroom dealing between a few senators and industrial food and biotech companies. The DARK Act was actually defeated in March in the Senate as Americans involved in the food movement delivered millions of outraged comments to their senators.

But Monsanto and the company’s friends in the Grocery Manufacturers Association were not going to take this loss easily. Republicans in the pocketbook of Big Ag were easy to sway; they actively pushed for the bill they knew would be the next best thing to no GMO labeling. A handful of Democrats, up for election again in 2018, were able to be bought by Monsanto and the other corporations pushing the DARK Act. Senators Stabenow (D-MI), Klobuchar (D-MN), Heitkamp (D-ND) and Donnelly (D-IN) began private negotiations with the GMA and Senator Roberts (R-KS) to see if they could find a way to get the DARK Act across the finish line.

But would bringing in those senators looking for campaign dollars be enough to get the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a final vote? Probably not. So the bill’s proponents made a deal with the Organic Trade Association, which represents organic food companies but is increasingly influenced by big food companies like Smuckers, General Mills and Kraft—food giants that have only a small percentage of their business in organic brands. While virtually all of the legitimate organic farmer organizations were opposed to the DARK Act, the OTA had “big organic” industry interests in mind and simply sold out for some organic “pork.”

The last provision in the bill, added at the 11th hour, allows all organic foods to be labeled “non-GMO” without any testing to see whether they contain any GMO contamination, as can happen with some organic products. So while non-organic companies that want to label non-GMO will have to undergo testing and verification by third-party verifiers like the Non-GMO Project to ensure that they do not have any significant GMO content, that is not so for organic; they will have a “get out of jail free card.” The OTA endorsement did the trick and the bill was rushed through the Senate, then the House.

So through campaign corruption and an organic industry sellout, the DARK Act wins? Not so fast. Numerous groups (including the author’s) have committed to fighting this bill in federal court. No bill this blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional should be allowed to stand. So the fight against the DARK Act, and for local democracy and the right to know for all Americans, continues.

Andrew Kimbrell is the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.

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