National GMO labeling bill brings both cheers and jeers

Published on
June 27, 2016

There was praise and criticism both sides of the genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling debate late last week after the Senate passed a compromise bill.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), aims to establish a national GMO labeling program that is more lenient than the Vermont law, which will go into effect on 1 July.
The House still needs to vote on the bill.

The Senate bill would allow GMO food manufacturers to use a text label, a symbol or QR code on the package that consumers could access via smartphone, whereas Vermont's law requires GMO products to be labeled "produced with genetic engineering."

AquaBounty, the producer of AquAdvantage GE salmon which received FDA approval last November, and other organizations praised the Senate agreement.

“We are hopeful the federal label pre-emption will pass and rationalize the market,” Ron Stotish, president and CEO of AquaBounty, told SeafoodSource.
The Senate compromise was needed to benefit consumers, farmers, manufacturers, retailers and others, said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Charles F. Conner, resident and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the co-chairs of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.

The bipartisan agreement “provides certainty to consumers and protects our national food chain from the costly negative impacts of Vermont’s on-package labeling mandate,” Bailey and Connor said in a statement. “By offering increased transparency and disclosure in a clear and consistent manner, this legislation will ensure consumers who want to learn more about the products they buy have the ability to do so.”

However, some consumer and environmental groups criticized the Senate agreement. “This deal can still be described as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act because it will ensure that most consumers won’t know how their food is produced,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement. If passed, consumers would be required to have smartphone and a cellphone signal to “know what they are buying”, she said.

Conversely, Vermont’s law “would give consumers clear, on-package labels,” Hauter said. “People want to know if the food they buy contains GMO ingredients. It’s time for Congress to create a mandatory on-package labeling requirement so people can decide for themselves whether they want to eat a food that has been produced using genetic engineering.”

Executives with Consumers Union agreed with the sentiment. The agreement “preempts any state GMO labeling bill,” Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, told SeafoodSource. “It would stop what is happening in Vermont, and then it would have USDA come up what disclosure [on packages] would look like within two years.”

Meanwhile, AquaBounty recently asked a federal court to allow it to assist the F.D.A. in defending a challenge to the agency’s authority to regulate GE animals. A coalition of groups led by the Center for Food Safety filed a federal lawsuit claiming the F.D.A. lacks the authority to make rulings on genetically engineered animals, based on the argument that U.S. Congress first must provide “explicit statutory authority” to the agency.

“We don't comment on pending legal issues, but believe FDA's decision will be upheld,” Stotish said.

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