Obama passes historic GMO labeling law

America has been caught up in a food fight over genetically engineered crops for years, but with the passing of new legislation, that fight may soon come to an end. On July 29, President Obama signed bill S. 764 which put into place a federal standard for foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This came two weeks after Congress passed legislation to necessitate labeling on all food
packages that indicates whether they are made with GMO ingredients. Exempt from this rule are foods coming from livestock like beef, milk, pork, poultry or eggs, even if the feed the animals ate contained genetically modified corn or soybeans.

“The passage of this bill allows for both consumers and producers to move on from this fight, and benefit from a uniformed, standardized labeling law across the country,” said Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, prior to its signing.

For years, American consumers have been skeptical about the health risks associated with consuming GMOs. That consumer anxiety inspired many companies to respond by either vowing to label all GMO products, as Whole Foods has, or to completely swear off GMOs, as Chipotle and Trader Joe’s have done. In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey that found that 57 percent of Americans believed that it was “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” In addition to companies responding to
consumer fears about GMOs, the state of Vermont was the first in the nation to pass law mandating the labeling of GMOs in 2014. The law went into effect on July 1 of this year, however, with the passage of this new bill, that law is now nullified.

While there is no shortage of consumer anxiety when it comes to GMOs, there is not a whole lot of scientific evidence to back up their fears. The World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science and even the US Food and Drug Administration have all declared that there is no reliable evidence that GMOs are unsafe.

Regardless of the hundreds of studies assuring the public that consuming GMOs is perfectly safe, Americans felt that they deserved to know what was going in to their food. Prior to the signing of this bill, whether or not to label foods containing GMOs was decided at the state level. To avoid a patchwork of laws across the nation, both sides of the aisle came together to make a compromise.

“The bill is a resounding rejection of activists who have been working for years to undermine consumers’ understanding of the safety of food biotechnology,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. “It reasserts the federal government’s role in regulating food labeling and ends the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach of potentially conflicting state laws in this area.”

The bill was passed with support from both Republicans and Democrats, winning final approval in a 306-117 vote. However, it was a flawed compromise for both anti-GMO activists and members of the food industry as it required the disclosure of GMOs, but also gave the food industry choices for how to label their products – a far less stringent law than the one passed in Vermont.

“Its consistent national standard is far better than a costly and confusing patchwork of different state labeling,” Pam Bailey, Grocery Manufacturers Association’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “The president’s signing of this legislation stops, effective immediately, Vermont’s mandatory on-package labeling law that … already has left consumers in the state with fewer products on the shelves and higher compliance costs for small businesses.”

According to the bill, certain foods containing GMOs would have to be labeled, but food makers would be able to choose a text label, symbol or QR code that consumers could scan with their smartphone to find out more information about which ingredients are GMOs. While the food industry ended up supporting the final bill, many GMO labeling advocates did not. They argued that allowing food companies to use QR codes as labels would exclude consumers without smartphones and put a burden on the consumer by requiring them to take additional steps to find out what is in the product.

While the bill may not be perfect for either side of the argument, it’s still progress and a step toward greater transparency for the food industry. The USDA will have two years to write the rules of the new legislation, which will cover foods created with conventional recombinant DNA techniques, but not the more precise gene-editing technology CRISPR.

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