Senate Considers Toned-Down Version of GMO Labeling DARK Act

With Vermont's state-level labeling law about to be implemented, the food industry is still hoping for a federal solution.
Milk can contain the GMO growth hormone rBGH. (Photo: Dan Dalton/Getty Images)
Jun 24, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Starting next week, Vermont’s grocery aisles will be full of packages with labels showing whether the products contain genetically engineered foods. The state’s major labeling bill—the first in the nation—passed in 2014, yet food companies are still hoping for a last-minute reprieve before the law goes into effect on July 1.

On Thursday, they got a glimmer of hope: The Senate announced a bipartisan bill to create a federal labeling standard for bioengineered foods that would supersede any state regulations. But rather than the simple printed-on-the-package labels that Vermont’s law calls for, the federal bill would allow companies to choose between including simple label, printing a call-in phone number, or utilizing a scannable QR code that would give consumers information on the food’s contents.

“For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who sponsored the bill, in a statement. She added that she “wanted a bill that prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state.” Those in favor of this bill are focusing on how it “closes glaring loopholes under the Vermont law” that would, for example, have allowed a cheese pizza to be labeled as containing GMOs even as a pepperoni pizza with genetically engineered ingredients was not. (Under the state law, foods containing meat cannot be labeled as containing GMOs.)

Stabenow may be presenting the bill as a mandatory labeling law—just what pro-labeling groups have been pushing for—but it is far from being accepted as such. Organizations that advocate for GMO labeling laws take issue with how the actual labeling would occur.

“We don’t put nutrition facts in a QR code because people need that information,” said Patty Lovel, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. She believes that companies that never wanted to label G.E. products will undoubtedly choose the labeling options that require more effort from consumers to get the information. “It would be nice if there was a federal law that would cover all 50 states, but this isn’t labeling,” Lovel added.

The bill, which won't be taken up in the House before its members return from summer recess on July 5, will continue the saga of the so-called DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act—the name pro-labeling groups have given to a series of bills that have attempted to block state-level labeling law’s like Vermont’s. But passing a federal labeling standard with more gentle regulations was always a backup plan for the food industry.

For the last five years, states have struggled to pass labeling laws. In 2012, 51 percent of California voters opposed a ballot measure to label G.E.s. The next year, Washington gave it a try, and the bill lost, again with 51 percent opposed. Companies poured money into advertising against both measures. In Washington, roughly $29 million was spent on I-522, making it one of the most expensive initiatives in the state’s history.

But as states such as Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine began to pass G.E. labeling bills, the food industry’s fight moved on from attempting to block measures by swaying the public.

The next attempt to stop state-level labeling came through the courts. Just a month after Vermont’s bill passed, a collection of industry groups filed suit alleging that mandatory labeling infringed on their First Amendment rights, federal supremacy, and interstate commerce laws.

These suits could still matter, as it will likely be months or years before they are resolved in court—unless a federal labeling bill resolves the matter first. So far, the suits are focusing on Vermont, as Maine’s and Connecticut’s bills only go into effect if a certain number of contiguous states pass similar laws. If not, the labeling laws will become void within a few years.

Lovel mentions that on a recent trip, she saw food labeled to Vermont’s standards on grocery store shelves. General Mills, Mars, Campbell’s, and Kellogg have announced that they will voluntarily add G.E. labels to many of their products nationwide. “Several companies are ready to go for July 1,” she said. Vermont’s laws may not be welcome news to all manufacturers, but these labeled products show that G.E. food labeling can—and will—happen in the state.

The only question is how long it will last.