After years of battling state-by-state efforts to label genetically modified organisms, the country’s biggest food companies finally found one plan they can get behind.
They have two years to comply with a national law compelling them to disclose whether their products contain GMOs, the designer plants that are developed by adding DNA from one species to that of another.
It sounds like a dream come true for the food activists who’ve been funding failed statewide ballot measures to require labeling of GMO products, including a California initiative in 2012.
But those activists are the people most frustrated by the new law, which President Barack Obama signed in late July.
They call it a corporate-backed takeover of their movement that is riddled with loopholes and is too complicated for many consumers to understand.
“We just want to know what we’re putting on the table,” said Jessica Denning, a retired middle-school teacher from Carmichael who volunteers with GMO-labeling organizations.
Major food companies, by contrast, are relieved that they’ll have only one GMO law to consider. The new national law negates similar legislation in Vermont that was about to take effect this summer, and it blocks other states and local governments from crafting their own measures.
Here’s a look at the new law and what kind of label you might be seeing soon:
What will the new label look like?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gets two years to devise a labeling system that will give companies three ways to advertise whether their products contain GMO ingredients.
Two resemble options that companies use today, but a third relies on cellphone technology that some food advocates say is out of reach for many customers.
70 percent Portion of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association
▪ A symbol: Hundreds of companies already post labels on their products to advertise that they don’t use genetically modified ingredients. They participate in a voluntary program that allows them to advertise as “non-GMO verified.”
The new law leaves room for companies to continue using those symbols, which show a butterfly and a budding plant. It’s not clear yet if the U.S. Department of Agriculture will mandate a single design or if it will allow a variety of symbols.
▪ Nutritional facts: Another option would be adding text to the nutritional facts published on most food packages.
Some companies, including General Mills, started to use that method as they prepared to comply with the now-negated Vermont law. That’s why boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios include the phrase “partially produced with genetic engineering” on their side panels.
▪ Cellphone smart labels: The third option would allow companies to create so-called “smart labels” that would electronically disclose detailed product information by way of a code that customers could scan with their cellphones.
Some major food companies like the idea of smart labels, which can yield extensive information about a product in a style that they regard as neutral.
They have fought GMO labeling in the past, arguing that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies suggests no known health risks to GMO ingredients and that the extra product information could give customers the impression that they are dangerous.
(Cellphone smart labels are) the way you can guarantee complete insight into everything in that package.
Monsanto Vice President Robert Fraley
Monsanto, the seed giant most associated by the public with GMOs, favors smart labels.
It operates a seed development site in Woodland that largely relies on plant breeding to refine crops, but the company is well-known for selling brands of genetically modified row crops – such as soybeans and corn – that can tolerate a kind of herbicide the company also produces.
Smart labels are “the way you can guarantee complete insight into everything in that package,” said Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley on a recent visit to the company’s Woodland site.
Why are food activists upset?
The food labeling law passed Congress in stealth fashion when the Senate gutted a House bill that would have blocked Planned Parenthood funding and replaced it with GMO rules.
Obama signed it the day after the Democratic National Convention, which activists say also obscured public attention that the law might have otherwise received.
A third of Americans do not own a smartphone and so would not be able to scan the code. It puts up a barrier to clear information.
Rebecca Spector of the Center for Food Safety
Activists are most upset with the provision that allows smart labels. They say many consumers don’t have access to a cellphone. Another segment might not be able to receive reliable reception in a grocery store, making the cellphone scans impractical.
“A third of Americans do not own a smartphone and so would not be able to scan the code. It puts up a barrier to clear information,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director for the advocacy group Center for Food Safety.
“That’s not clear labeling,” she said.
The group also contends that the new national law uses a narrow definition of genetic engineering that may allow companies to not label certain products, such as vegetable oils. The group favors the language in the Vermont law.
Why are large food companies happy?
It’s good for the balance sheet.
Large food companies have been shelling out tens of millions of dollars fighting state GMO-labeling initiatives over the past five years.
We just want to know what we’re putting on the table.
GMO activist Jessica Denning
The trend reversed in 2014 when Vermont’s Legislature passed its own GMO-labeling law. That’s when companies like General Mills began calling for a nationwide GMO law to avoid state-by-state standards that would prove costly for national distribution.
“It’s very urgent for them because if it continued and every state did its own law, it’s an untenable situation for growers,” said Kent Bradford, a UC Davis professor of plant sciences who favors GMO research for crops and has opposed mandatory labeling of GMO products.
He is one of the founders of Seed Central, a partnership between UC Davis and the region’s seed industry that aims to hasten commercial breakthroughs.
“Something had to be done and I agree totally that it should have been a national rule,” he said.
Are GMO foods safe?
People and livestock have been eating GMO crops since the 1980s. The vast majority of scientific studies on those have not shown harmful effects on human health.
In June, more than 100 Nobel laureates wrote a letter to Greenpeace asking the organization to drop its opposition to a genetically engineered variety of rice that could reduce blindness and malnutrition in the developing world. The so-called “golden rice” is designed to produce vitamin A, potentially curing a common vitamin deficiency that is linked to blindness.
That followed a May report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that assessed decades of research on GMO foods. It encouraged more studies, but found that GMOs so far have not been shown to harm the people or animals that have consumed them.
Critics want more studies, fearing that GMO products may harm public health in ways that are as yet not understood.