Political fight heats up in US as vote nears on GMO labeling

Published on
July 8, 2016

Some consumer groups and legislators are urging the United States House of Representatives to reject a bill passed by the U.S. Senate on 7 July that would establish a national labeling program for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and do away with stricter state laws.

As part of the bill, S. 764 (the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015), the Senate voted to pass a voluntary national standard allowing GMO food manufacturers to use a text label, a symbol or QR code on the package that consumers can access via smartphone.

The national law, if passed by the House and signed by President Barack Obama, will supersede the GMO labeling rules passed by individual states. A Vermont law, which went into effect on 1 July, requires on-package labeling of GMO products as "produced with genetic engineering." Alaska also requires labeling of GMO salmon (but not other GMO foods).

U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) oppose the legislation, saying that wild Alaska salmon needs to be differentiated from genetically engineered salmon or the industry will face the risk of some consumers avoiding salmon altogether.

GMO salmon “poses a serious threat to the livelihoods of our fishermen, and that's not something that I'm willing to take a risk, that I'm willing to take a gamble on,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor prior to the vote. “Our fisheries in the state of Alaska are world-renowned for their high quality and their sustainability. The Alaska seafood industry supports more than 63,000 direct jobs and contributes over USD 4.6 billion (EUR 4.2 billion) to our state's economy. Commercial fishermen around the state harvested more than 265 million salmon this past year, including the wild Chinook salmon, sockeye, coho, chunks and pinks.”

Consumers and retailers have said they want to know whether they are buying GMO salmon or not, and the current legislation would not require mandatory labeling, Murkowski said.

“Many of the grocery stores that we frequent have said, ‘You know what, if you are going to allow this out here, we are not going to sell this in our stores,’” she said. “They want to know that there's going to be a label on it. They want to know that they can tell their customers this is wild Alaska sustainable, or the real thing, and this [GMO salmon] is not. And a voluntary label again doesn't cut it.”

Supporting the legislation are several agriculture and food groups as well as AquaBounty, producer of AquAdvantage salmon – genetically engineered Atlantic salmon modified with a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a promoter sequence from an ocean pout that enables it to grow faster.

“We hope that federal pre-emption will address the labeling issue in the U.S. At least it should forestall inconsistent state-by-state label laws, which would have a devastating impact on food distribution in the U.S.,” Ron Stotish, president and CEO of AquaBounty, told SeafoodSource.

“Nearly 1,100 organizations in the food-producing community are united behind this bill to set a uniform, national standard that protects American family farmers and small businesses,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and co-chair of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. “Today’s vote means that both chambers of Congress have had strong bipartisan votes to set a national standard and avoid the higher costs and consumer confusion from a patchwork of state labeling laws.”

Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and other groups are urging the House to reject the bill and are calling on President Obama to veto the bill should it pass. When he was running for president several years ago, Obama said that consumers have the right to know whether or food is genetically engineered or not, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said.

“The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable for stripping away this transparency,” Hauter said.

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