GMO Labeling Update

Tom Philpott’s regular column in Mother Jones is always informative and often provocative. I don’t always agree with his views but I read him regularly.

His latest piece is on the potential national implications of a new Vermont law that mandates labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For those of us who favor GMO labeling, this is essential reading.

The entire article is well worth 5-10 minutes of your time. Here’s an excerpt:

In the years since, the GMA [Grocery Manufacturers Association] has hotly promoted the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, known by critics as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act, which would nullify all state GMO labeling laws. The House passed such a bill in July 2015, and supporters tried and ultimately failed to push a similar provision into an omnibus spending bill at year-end.

It has yet to make it through the Senate, but now the chair of the legislative body’s agriculture committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), is making a major push. In hopes of averting what he called the “wrecking ball” of Vermont’s labeling statute, Roberts—a major recipient of agribusiness campaign fundspushed a bill through the Senate ag committee on March 1 that forbids state GMO labeling requirements. GMA vigorously supports Roberts’ bill, but it remains in limbo. To force a vote on the Senate floor, he’ll need 60 votes, and so far he doesn’t have them.

Meanwhile, a group of Democrats led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are pushing a rival bill that would require GMO labeling everywhere—essentially, taking the Vermont law nationwide. Food giant Campbell’s, which has broken ranks with the broader industry on this topic and favors GMO labeling, supports the Merkley bill. Yet it, too, currently lacks the votes to win passage.

This week, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stepped into the stalemate, pushing a compromise in a speech before the National Farmers union: Rather than mandatory labeling, he’s pushing mandatory “disclosure,” wherein food companies are required to disclose GMO ingredients to interested consumers, but not on the label. In Vilsack’s vision, mandatory disclosure could take the form of an 800 number on the label that consumers can call for info on GMO ingredients, or a QR code that can be read by smartphones. “Vilsack has said that President Barack Obama would sign such a bill,” reports the trade journal Hoosier Ag Today.

There’s much to unpack here, but from my perspective the most significant informational nugget is that Campbell’s has broken with its GMA brethren. Campbell’s could be an outlier or this could represent a leading indicator of a shifting political environment.