The Sneaky Way Congress Wants to Help 'Big Food' Manipulate GMO Labels

When politicians talk about 'clarity for consumers,' you know you'd better watch out.

Rep. Mike Pompeo. (Photo: Bill Clark/'CQ Roll Call')

Mar 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Don’t underestimate the power of the DARK side. The congressional duo who have been trying to pass legislation that would prevent states from enacting GMO-labeling laws—and nullify those already on the books—are back.

Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., announced Wednesday that they are reintroducing their euphemistically named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act—or what critics have effectively derided as the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act.

Just like its official title, the bill sounds reasonable enough: In its newest iteration, it would establish a federally sanctioned label that companies could use to market their products as GMO-free, so long as they have completed a certification process that would be overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

That’s decidedly not what GMO-labeling activists have been agitating for. For starters, they want to see food that contains GMO ingredients labeled as such—a warning label, in effect, not a marketing tool. You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder what else might be lurking in the bill when you hear how members of Congress are talking about it.

“Our goal for this legislation remains to provide clarity and transparency in food labeling, support innovation, and keep food affordable,” Pompeo said in a release—with a notable lack of irony for a Republican advocating federal legislation that would trump states’ rights.

He’s echoed by his friend across the aisle, Butterfield, who intoned, “This bill will provide clear rules for producers and certainty for consumers at the grocery store checkout lane.”

What their joint press release fails to mention is that their bill would continue to allow companies to “voluntarily” choose to label products made with GMOs. But as the Environmental Working Group points out, that voluntary labeling program hasn’t been a smashing success. In the 14 years since the Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidelines for it, how many manufacturers do you think have signed up to tell consumers, “Hey, look, our products are made with GMOs”? None.

The so-called DARK Act would also override GMO-labeling laws that have already been passed in at least three states, and it would prohibit any other state from passing its own law requiring companies to label.

Make no mistake: That’s the real intention here. Pompeo and Butterfield may talk about “clarity” and “certainty for consumers,” but when you think of it, what could be more certain and clear than a label that essentially says, “This product in your hand was made with GMO ingredients”? As for saving consumers money, the pols take a page from the big food lobby, which has spent millions battling GMO-labeling initiatives in a number of states—by trying to scare consumers into believing that mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients would hike the average family’s grocery bill by $500 per year. A study by Consumers Union last fall said it would be more like $9 per year for a family of four.

If Pompeo and Butterfield’s proposed “GMO-free” labeling system overseen by the USDA sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. We already have a GMO-free label, in effect. It’s called “Organic.” And that’s where the debate gets really interesting.

As GMO-labeling advocates point out, the vast majority of Americans say they want to know what’s in the food they eat; by some measures, 90 percent support mandatory labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. Yet if that desire to know were so strong—a desire that presumes a significant degree of wariness about GMO crops—how is it that we’ve come to live in a country where 85 percent of corn and 91 percent of the soybeans grown are genetically modified? By certain estimates, 75 percent of the processed food in our grocery stores already contains genetically modified ingredients.

Let’s face it: I’d venture that the majority of consumers spend more time watching cat videos on YouTube than taking the time to understand where their food comes from, what’s healthy to eat, and what’s healthy for the planet. After all, a Consumer Reports survey found 64 percent of Americans believed that the more or less meaningless label “natural” on a food product meant that it didn’t contain GMOs. Might it be that it’s time we stop letting labels doing the work for us and start really getting to know our food?