GMO Foods Could Be Labeled 'Natural' Under Proposed Law

The so-called DARK Act has turned even darker.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Jul 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The battle over GMO labeling in Washington, D.C., has taken a substantially darker turn.

This week the House Agriculture Committee will likely vote on the euphemistically named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, or what opponents have rechristened the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act.

That’s because the bill would effectively quash any and all state efforts to require labeling of foods that contain GMO ingredients, such as the laws that have already passed in Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. Instead, the House bill would create a GMO-labeling program that would be entirely voluntary. Food makers would get to choose whether to label any products that don’t contain GMOs, basically taking a fight that was intended to force the processed food industry to be transparent about the GMOs it’s using and turning it on its head, giving food makers a snazzy new government-sanctioned “GMO-free” label to use at their discretion.

That’s been the crux of the bill ever since it was introduced by pro-industry lawmakers. The current version of the legislation is arguably worse.

“This bad bill just keeps getting worse,” Mary Ellen Kustin, a policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group, told EcoWatch. “The DARK Act has always been an infringement upon the well-established rights of states to regulate food labeling, but the most recent version of the bill takes that overreach to a new level.”

Indeed, the DARK(er) Act would go much further than its earlier incarnations by prohibiting state and local governments from regulating the production of GMO crops, such as by protecting communities from the effects of things like pesticide drift (many GMO crops have been engineered to withstand heavy applications of agrichemicals). It would also bar food companies from suggesting that non-GMO foods are in any way superior to their GMO counterparts, and it would put control over any non-GMO claims a company might make squarely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency widely perceived as GMO-friendly.

Perhaps most egregious, the House bill would allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled “natural.” If that seems wildly Orwellian to you, you’re not alone.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Consumer Reports, a whopping two-thirds of consumers think a food labeled “natural” does not contain any pesticides, artificial ingredients, or GMOs. But in reality, the “natural” food label is more or less meaningless—the federal government has no strict regulations regarding its use by manufacturers.

That Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., the chief sponsor of the DARK Act, and his pro-industry allies in the House appear to be flouting the will of the American public to do the bidding of the food industry is further evidenced by the fact that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed by Consumer Reports—85 percent—say foods labeled “natural” should not contain GMOs. Other recent polls show near universal support—upwards of 90 percent, for example, in a Consumers Union poll conducted last fall—among Americans for GMO labeling.

To that, no doubt, supporters of the DARK Act would probably say, “Let them eat GMO cake.”