Sorry Food Industry, The Historic GMO Food Labeling Bill Is Anything But

August 02, 2016

It is official, President Barack Obama has signed into law federal legislation, supporting H.R.1599 – Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.

Originally published on

It is official, President Barack Obama has signed into law federal legislation, supporting H.R.1599 – Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and the Roberts-Stabenow Biotech Labeling Act, introduced by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)  – the bipartisan agreement can be found here mandating the labeling of food containing any genetically modified material. This has been a long and hard fought battle between the pro GMO and the anti GMO factions where according to EWG, over $100,000,000 has been spent to thwart statewide legislation – except in Bernie Sanders’ state of Vermont (Sanders by the way was one of the few candidates that posted a statement on agriculture). Vermont’s law challenged food companies with much stricter labeling requirements and led some food companies to stop selling their products on Vermont’s supermarket shelves in order to avoid the extra costs of labeling or segregating stocks from their other distribution. This new bill pre-empts the Vermont law  that went into effect July 1, 2016, which would require items be labeled “produced with genetic engineering.”

Many of the food trade associations are thrilled with the result issuing statements that this move will eliminate confusion and help consumers understand more fully what GMOs are and are not. I’m not so sure. According to Packaged Facts, 56 percent of American adults actively seek out nutritional information and guidelines on food labels.

The problem with the debate is that it is a very scientific and complex issue that most laymen just don’t understand. The nuances between just three of the possibilities: conventional plant breeding, biotechnology to uncover certain desirable (or undesirable) traits in the genome and actually inserting one piece of DNA from one plant (or species) to another need to be understood, and unfortunately all seem to be lumped together under GMO. Until we can explain these properly there will be no better understanding or more transparency.

One thing is for sure is that the legislation as written will require food packages to declare, through a QR code, a symbol, 800# or plain text whether a food contains genetically engineered ingredients. Many argue that not using a QR code greatly limits the amount of access of the information; but more troubling to me is that fact that there are no penalties for lack of compliance and no authority to recall products that are not properly labeled. Other examples of self-regulated labeling has led to much confusion over the claim “natural” as well as many nutritional claims prove the point.

One failing of the bill is that even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that the definition of “bioengineering” in the bill is too narrow and would not apply to many foods that come from genetically engineered sources. One very controversial issue revolves around “gene-editing”  which is simply genetic engineering through which DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of an organism using engineered nucleases, and has been used in biomedical research and medicine. Controversial as this science is not covered under the bill.

The argument about the safety of GMOs is one that will continue to be debated for decades, with both sides having valid concerns. A call for clear and consistent labeling is what consumers want. The industry has heard loud and clear that shoppers want to know if a product contains GMO ingredients and be able to make the choice; and we have also seen that when some mainstream products do so – like labeling on Campbell’s soup – that sales have not decreased. In fact, we have seen the image and support of companies improves when they are upfront, transparent and willing to share information.

It has been widely reported in the food industry that 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain genetically modified ingredients and most are corn and soy-based, as is the feed for our livestock. The Food and Drug Administration says without hesitancy that they are safe to eat.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two years to write the rules. A lot can happen in two years. Research in the safety of genetic engineering might get us information that proves it is safer than we think, or just the opposite. Breakthroughs in genetic engineering might give our foods healing powers that can cure disease or obesity. Or it can give both sides of the debate time to find loopholes or lobby our next administration for change.