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The Mandatory GMO Labeling Bill
By Hadley Turner

One doesn't have to pay much attention to news media to know that GMOs have become one of the most prominent hot-button food issues in the past several years. According to a 2015 survey by Health Focus International, GMOs rank within consumers' top five global food concerns. Respondents cited GMOs as more of a concern than artificial flavors and colors in food and growth hormones and antibiotics in dairy.1

In recent years, many environmental and consumer organizations have fervently pushed for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, arguing that consumers have a right to know whether the foods they buy contain these ingredients. Agricultural organizations and food companies, as well as the biotechnology industry, largely have opposed labeling initiatives, out of concern that consumers will refuse to buy GM-labeled foods.1

One of the most recent developments in this saga is a bill mandating labels on foods containing GM ingredients. The bill passed in the Senate and the House of Representatives in mid-July with bipartisan support, and President Obama signed it into law July 29.2

Substance of the Bill
The mandatory labeling bill requires food companies to label products containing ingredients that have been "bioengineered," according to the language of the bill. This includes any food "that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant [DNA] techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature."3

Factors to be decided now that the bill has passed include how much of a bioengineered substance may be present in a food in order for the food to be considered bioengineered, the process by which the bioengineered designation of ingredients may be challenged, and what labeling alternatives may be allowed for smaller companies. Exceptions are made for animal foods derived from livestock that were fed bioengineered ingredients, "very small food manufacturers," and food served in restaurants. Exclusions also may apply to foods that are derived from other bioengineered foods in which the final product contains trace amounts of bioengineered DNA, such as sugar derived from bioengineered beets. Official standards for mandatory labeling will be determined in no less than two years.3

One of the especially controversial aspects of the bill is that it's a federal mandate. This means that it would take precedence over state laws, such as the recent Vermont legislation that requires direct-language labeling, and couldn't be changed on a state or local level.

Another provision of the bill that has caused some contention includes the right of individual food companies to decide how they will present their labels indicating GM ingredients. The bill allows companies to provide a label in the form of direct words on the package (eg, "Partially produced with genetic engineering"), a picture or symbol, or an electronic or digital link.3 At this point, media have indicated that this link would likely be in the form of a Quick Response (QR) code, which is a small square barcode that can be scanned with a smartphone camera.2 Once scanned, more information about the product would open on the user's phone.

The Just Label It! campaign, a coalition of the Environmental Working Group and a lengthy list of food companies that support mandatory GMO labels, opposes the option for a link or QR code, calling this provision a "loophole" and arguing that consumers should be provided with "at-a-glance" disclosures in direct language on food packages.4 Other groups have used stronger language, calling the bill a "sham" and "inexcusable."2

Consumer Impact
While the general argument for clearer labels than what's being proposed seems to be out of fairness to the consumer, Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says information provided by a link or QR code would be more beneficial to consumers than package labeling that simply says "Produced by genetic engineering."

"I think there are some consumers whom this information is important to, but I don't think that's the vast majority of consumers," Jaffe says. "If you look at studies and surveys, the majority of consumers don't know anything about genetically engineered crops and foods, or what genetic engineering is; this information won't be meaningful to them or particularly useful unless there would be some kind of accompanying educational campaign that provides adequate, accurate, and neutral information."

Jaffe provides an example of a recent survey from Oklahoma State University. When participants were asked if they wanted GM foods to be labeled, the vast majority said "yes." But a similar number said they wanted foods containing DNA to be labeled as well, he says, which, of course, comprises all living things.

Thus, Jaffe argues that the option of a QR code or link is actually more advantageous for consumers. "It allows the information to be provided not in just three or four words, but in words that would inform and not just provide the information but give a context for the information," he says. "Disclosing more information rather than less is a positive thing."

Mary Jo Forbord, RDN, a certified organic farmer in West Central Minnesota, disagrees with Jaffe's latter statement. "It's always better to err on the side of transparency than trying to confuse people with too much information," she says.

However, Forbord thinks GMO labeling also has the potential to benefit consumers by providing them with "greater awareness of our entire food system and food chain. But we're only starting down the path of informed choices" when it comes to our food.

She continues: "What [this bill] says to me is that people are finding that they need to be more connected to their food than they are; they need to trust and know about what's going into their bodies. And I really think this is about that transparency."

Concerning the QR code vs direct labeling issue, Forbord adds that it's more important that consumers read food labels and ask questions such as, "Who grew this? Where was this grown? How was this grown?" Consumers should "involve [themselves] in the food system as opposed to determining a standard label format."

Consequences for Industry
Several large corporations, including Campbell's Soup, Whole Foods, General Mills, Mars, Kellogg Company, and ConAgra Foods, have pledged to include direct-language GMO labels.5 However, some agricultural organizations and food companies fear mandatory labeling of GM ingredients may lead to a situation similar to that in some European countries.2

Jaffe shares their concern. "In Europe, where they have mandatory labeling, most farmers don't grow these crops and products don't contain them because companies don't want to have a [GMO] label on them," he says. This ultimately led to a ban on GMOs for direct human consumption in several European countries. "So there is precedence for the fact that in Europe, mandatory labeling has led to an elimination of foods that contain ingredients from GM crops."

Forbord, on the other hand, doesn't think the elimination of GMOs in the United States is a realistic outcome, at least not in the near future.

"We are just starting down the path of informed [food] choices," she says. Considering the percentage of crops that is GM (about 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States), Forbord thinks that would be "pretty drastic, if we're going to go from 90% to 0%.

"We've built our farm economy to survive upon genetically modified crops," she continues. "All of our policies have been written to support the kind of [GMO-heavy] agricultural system that we have. This brings up a question. You've got 90% of farmers in the Midwest growing genetically modified crops, and you've been doing that since the mid-1990s." If GMOs did fall off the market, "What are they going to grow tomorrow? What is our plan if we decide to go in a different direction than GMOs? What is our vision for food in the United States? Those are the big questions that we're faced with, and I really think that labeling GMOs is really at the front of those deep discussions we really need to have."

Whatever the ultimate consequences of mandatory GMO labeling, which only time will tell, it's clear the bill will fan the flames of this ongoing debate, and, as Forbord suggests, spark important conversations about food production and sustainability.

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian.

1. Watson E. 87% of consumers globally think non-GMO is 'healthier'. But where's the evidence? FoodNavigator-USA website. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Manufacturers/87-of-consumers-globally-think-non-GMO-is-healthier. Updated August 13, 2015. Accessed July 27, 2016.

2. Charles D. Congress just passed a GMO labeling bill. Nobody's super happy about it. National Public Radio website. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/14/486060866/congress-just-passed-a-gmo-labeling-bill-nobodys-super-happy-about-it. Published July 14, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

3. US Senate. A bill to amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods, and for other purposes. http://www.agriculture.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Mandatory%20Labeling%20Bill.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2016.

4. Senator Stabenow and Senator Roberts GMO labeling legislation. Just Label It! website. http://www.justlabelit.org/dark-act/. Accessed July 26, 2016.

5. Thank you for labeling GMOs. Just Label It! website. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50202/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=18613. Accessed July 28, 2016.