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GMO Labeling Bill

Posted: July 11, 2016

National Organic Coalition’s Statement 
in Opposition to the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill, which passed the Senate last week, and is heading to the House for action this week

The members of the National Organic Coalition are unanimously opposed to the Senate-passed version of GMO labeling legislation.   

The Senate GMO Labeling “compromise” bill championed by Senators Roberts and Stabenow falls far short:

The bill allows companies to use “quick response” or QR codes (a machine-readable code that can be read by a smartphone camera), 1-800 numbers and websites rather than fully transparent, on-package labels. Many consumers do not have access to smartphones or the ability to call multiple 1-800 numbers while shopping in search of information.

The bill has huge loopholes and exempts most GE foods from any labeling: the definition of “bioengineering” in the bill is much weaker than other definitions of genetically engineered foods, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition; as a result, this proposal runs the risk that soy and canola oil, sugar from GE beets, glyphosate-resistant crops, and most Bt crops would be exempt from labeling requirements. In response to concerns raised by FDA about the definitions in the bill, USDA issued a statement saying that the bill gives the agency the “authority” to require labeling for all of these products, but it stopped short of saying that the bill would require the agency to do so. When asked to clarify the vague definitions in the bill to ensure that the new definition does not result in exclusion of all of a broad list of GE products from labeling requirements, Senators Stabenow and Roberts declined to do so. This only confirms our concerns about the intent of these new definitions, and leaves USDA and the courts in the driver’s seat in deciphering Congress’ intent.    

There are no enforcement provisions: companies that do not comply face no penalties.

This bill is unnecessary. Many companies, including Kellogg’s, Frito Lay, General Mills, Mars, ConAgra, Dannon, and Campbell’s are already labeling genetically engineered products in response to the Vermont labeling law, which went into effect on July 1. This bill blocks Vermont’s law and gives the USDA two additional years to set labeling rules under this weak and meaningless framework. 

Unfortunately, the organic community is split with regard to this bill.

Some organic organizations have expressed qualified support for the Senate-passed bill because of the last-minute inclusion of provisions to make it easier for certified organic products to be labeled as non-GMO, and to ensure that meat and dairy products derived from animals fed GMO feed cannot be automatically labeled non-GMO, even though they are exempt for the “bioengineered” labeling requirements of the bill.    

While NOC members believe these non-GMO labeling clarifications are important, they are modest in comparison to the many problems of the bill. These problems include major concerns about the direct impact of the bill on organic farms, businesses and consumers: 

1) The bill could undermine GMO prohibitions in organic. A provision suggests that the new definition of genetic engineering (renamed  “bioengineering”) in the bill should be harmonized with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) rules and regulations. Specifically, the bill says that the Secretary of Agriculture must “consider establishing consistency” between the new bioengineered disclosure standard in the bill and OFPA regulations and rules. We all know that organic is non-GMO and so much more.  But if USDA were to change existing definitions of genetic engineering to align with the new definitions of bioengineering in the bill, it could significantly undermine the role of organic as the gold standard for consumers seeking to purchase non-GMO products. The champions of the Senate GMO bill have given verbal assurances that USDA will not seek to harmonize the two standards based on this bill, but they declined make that clarification for the record. Because of the uncertainty created by this provision for organic farmers, businesses and consumers, USDA will be in the driver’s seat to clarify their intentions with regard to this provision.   

2) The bill prohibits States from requiring transparent labeling of GMO seeds. A provision in the preemption section of the Senate GMO labeling bill prohibits states from requiring clear labeling of GE/GMO seeds. It is particularly critical for organic farmers and other farmers selling to non-GMO markets to be able to know what type of seeds they are buying, so they are prohibited from using GE seeds. A couple of states- VA and VT - require clear labeling of GE seeds. This bill would preempt states from requiring that transparency, but does not even attempt to create any federal GMO seed labeling standards. Since the definitions of this bill begins to blur the lines between what is genetic engineering and what is not, the importance of clear seed labeling standards may become even more important. Yet this bill prohibits states from doing so, and fails to establish any federal authority to require such seed labeling transparency. [See Sec. 295(b) of the Senate passed bill]

3) Will the clear GMO food labels already in use in the marketplace be prohibited from use now or in the future? A provision in the Senate-passed bill creates uncertainty about whether or not all the clear, transparent GMO labels currently in the marketplace (as a result of the VT law) will be allowed to continue. Section 293(b)(1) of the Senate passed bill states "IN GENERAL.--- A food may bear a disclosure that the food is bioengineered only in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary in accordance with this subtitle."   

The bill’s sponsors have given verbal assurances that they expect USDA to allow food companies be able to use existing labels until the new USDA regulations are written, and at that time, those regulations will determine if labels will need to be modified. But again the Senate sponsors of the bill declined to make any written assurances to this effect to clarify this matter, so the matter is entirely in the hands of USDA or the courts to clarify.  

The National Organic Coalition has consistently advocated for mandatory, meaningful, on-package labeling to ensure full transparency. 

Read our letter to Senators Roberts and Stabenow this past December, which explains why meaningful GMO labeling is needed and why QR codes do not work.

One of our strengths as a coalition is that we represent a full spectrum of stakeholders within the organic community: farmers and ranchers from all regions and sectors, certifiers, progressive businesses, and environmental and consumer advocacy organizations. It is indicative, then, that NOC is unequivocally opposed to this terrible bill that would use meaningless definitions of “bioengineering” to exempt most GMO ingredients from labeling requirements.

As the Senate bill heads to the House for action, NOC is urging member of the House to reject the unacceptable Senate bill and take the time to insist on a meaningful and transparent GMO labeling bill.  

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