Opponents of GMO labelling bill turn spotlight on Obama

Opponents of GMO labelling bill turn spotlight on Obama

The US House of Representatives voted 306-117 yesterday (14 July) to pass a bill that clears the way for mandatory, nationwide labelling of foods in the US made with genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs).

The Senate approved the proposed legislation in a 63-30 vote last week – and the bill is now on its way to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign the bill into law in its current form.

However, consumers and advocacy groups have called on the president to veto the bill, largely because of a provision that allows food manufacturers to display a scannable QR code on product labels rather than a statement.

Manufacturers can also use a symbol, which needs to be approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some foods, such as meat and poultry products, are exempt, as are ingredients created using certain approved methods of genetic engineering.

After the bill receives the president's signature, the spotlight will shift to the USDA. The department would have two years to determine definitions for what constitutes genetic engineering, create a symbol to use on product labels to denote genetically-modified ingredients and and set other rules for implementing the law.

Enactment of the law will also nullify state GMO labelling bills, which have included more stringent regulations. Vermont's mandatory GMO labelling bill was the first in the nation to enter into force on 1 July.

Campaigners in Vermont have called on President Obama to veto the "sham bill". The "Vermont Right to Know GMOs" group, which back Vermont's state law, said the bill leaves "a significant number of genetically engineered products unlabeled due to a definition of "bioengineered food" that even the Food and Drug Administration has called into question". "Companies will also be able to opt out of clear accessible on-package labelling by using digital QR codes that will be unreadable by approximately half of rural and low income Americans without access to smartphones or cell service."

US advocacy group Food & Water Watch has already pledged to continue campaigning in a bid to persuade President Obama not to enact the legislation. "If this bill becomes law, it would give food companies the option to use QR codes or 800-numbers for information that should be clearly marked on the package," the group said. "That's not real transparency. It would also use a very limited definition of what a GMO is, meaning many of the GMO ingredients already being used in our food will remain unlabelled."

However, American Soybean Association president Richard Wilkins, who is a soybean farmer from Delaware, said: "The passage of this bill allows for both consumers and producers to move on from this fight, and benefit from a uniformed, standardised labelling law across the country. We believe this thoughtfully-crafted compromise provides consumers with the information they need, without stigmatising a safe and sustainable food technology. Its enactment will stop a potential patchwork of state labelling and providing farmers, producers, manufacturers and consumers peace of mind as they continue to enjoy America's safe and affordable foods."

The American Feed Association's vice-president of legislative, regulatory and state affairs Leah Wilkinson said she was "pleased the confusion surrounding animal food products will be minimised by requiring disclosure for human food only". Wilkinson said products derived from animals fed GE ingredients are also not required to display a label. "State preemption in the bill does apply to all food – the term 'food' being all encompassing (human and animal) by federal definition – thereby ensuring one national standard."

The chairman and CEO of Nestle USA, Paul Grimwood, has welcomed measured contained in the bill, saying the industry "has been looking for a clear and consistent way to disclose GMO ingredients to consumers who rightfully want to know what is in their food and how their food is made".

Several major manufacturers have already committed to labelling GMO ingredients across their portfolios. Whether they will change their labelling practices based on passage of this law remains unclear.