News Thursday that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and the committee's ranking Senate Democrat Debbie Stabenow had finally sewn up a deal on nationwide GMO labeling left the food industry celebrating - but GMO labeling backers cursing - a law that will continue to leave consumers largely in the dark about the GMO content of their groceries.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the interests of the nation's largest food and beverage companies and has been the chief architect of legislation to pre-empt Vermont's mandatory labeling law, said Thursday that it "fully supports" the terms of the newly proposed legislation.
Senate Ag Democrats quickly took to social media to try to defend the deal, calling it a "win for consumers." A prior measure pushed by Roberts, referred to by critics as Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the DARK Act, was blocked by Senate Democrats in March.
But consumer advocates who were merely days away from seeing the nation's first mandatory GMO labeling law implemented - set to take effect in Vermont on July 1 - said the bill was no better than the prior version, and they vowed to do all they could to block its passage.
"This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. "We are appalled that our elected officials would support keeping Americans in the dark about what is in our food and even more appalled that they would do it on behalf of Big Chemical and food corporations.
The chief objection is that while the bill nullifies Vermont's law, and any other similar state labeling efforts, it also allows companies to avoid the main thing consumers have demanded - a fast and easy way to determine if a food product they are purchasing was made using genetically engineered crops.
To appease consumer concerns about GMOs, many national food companies have already started providing simple and clear on-package GMO labeling. But under the law now proposed, food companies could avoid any mention of genetic engineering on their packages and "disclose" GMO ingredients through digital codes rather than on-package language. Consumers would be directed to "scan here for more food information" with a smartphone to find information about the food they want to buy. Another option would allow food companies to provide a phone number along with language that states "call for more food information."
And, while the Vermont law would be nullified immediately, the law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) two years to finalize a rule laying out the disclosure requirements. Food manufacturers defined as "very small" would be exempt from the disclosure requirement entirely.
The law provides no federal penalties for violations of the labeling requirements. It calls for the USDA to determine the amounts of GMO "substance that may be present in food" to be considered a bioengineered food. Foods that have meat, poultry, and egg products as main ingredients are exempted.
And, some consumer advocates say that a provision setting a definition of genetic engineering, or "bioengineering," would be limited to such an extent that some interpretations might mean that foods made with herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans, the main GMO crops grown in the United States, would not be subject to the labeling requirements.
Consumer groups are vowing to blitz members of Congress with demands that they block the law, reminding them that this isn't about politics - it's about a consumer's fundamental right to make an informed decision about the food they are buying for themselves and their families.
Many consumers worry that the genetically engineered crops on the market now carry potential and actual risks for human health and the environment. They worry that because most GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, which the World Health Organization has declared a probable human carcinogen, that GMO foods might contain dangerous levels of that pesticide. And they lack confidence in the regulatory and corporate entities that say those concerns are unsubstantiated even though the regulators require no independent safety testing of genetically engineered crops before they are commercialized for food.
The food and agrichemical and seed industry interests have brushed aside those concerns, and have acknowledged that they fear consumers will turn away from foods clearly labeled GMO in favor of non-GMO, natural or organic products.
Consumer advocates accused Stabenow of selling out consumer interests to appease food and big agriculture interests, such as Monsanto Co., the chief purveyor of GMO seed technology. But Stabenow defended the deal.
"For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients," Stabenow said in a statement. "Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food."
The Senate is in session next week and could take the bill up, while the U.S. House of Representatives is in recess until after the Fourth of July holiday. Consumer advocates promise not to let labeling go down without a fight.
"This is still completely unacceptable to the nine out of ten Americans who want to be able to understand what they are buying," said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union. "It doesn't give people the choice they want. What has to be done now is stop this bill from getting through the Senate."