by Carla Curle
Safe and accurate? More like voluntary and confusing. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, also known by opponents as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act, will only deepen consumer confusion surrounding genetically modified ingredients in food products if it becomes law in the coming months.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that the topic of biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present in the food we eat, has become a polarizing issue. No matter what source of media you rely on, it’s likely that GMOs have made their way into your daily headlines. The amount of time, money, and media attention that went to either side of the GMO labeling debate this summer has been monumental.
All of this culminated with the House of Representatives’ passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) on July 23. This bill was re-introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) in March of this year. After several modifications and approval from the House Agriculture Committee on July 14, the bill easily passed on the House floor with a final vote of 275 to 150. Following the approval by the House, all eyes turn to the Senate to see if anyone will act on the issue and work towards creating a companion bill. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) has yet to find a Democrat co-sponsor, so it is unclear how the bill will move through the Senate in the months following August recess.
If Pompeo’s bill were to become law, it would:
- Block existing mandatory state labeling laws, such as the labeling law passed in Vermont, from taking effect;
- Create a national, voluntary non-GMO certification program through the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), but only for manufacturers who wish to use it; and
- Prevent states from regulating “natural” claims on GMO products, in addition to several other provisions.
Proponents of this bill, which include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Monsanto Company, and the Snack Food Association among hundreds of others, signed a letter from the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food to members of the U.S. House of Representatives in support of H.R. 1599 before the floor vote. The letter asserts that state GMO labeling initiatives would raise consumer confusion and increase food prices for American families by more than $500 a year for a family of four—a figure that has since been debunked and reduced after originally being published in a Washington Post piece.
If food and agribusiness companies are concerned about a patchwork state-by-state approach, then why would they not support a uniform federal standard for GMO labeling in the United States? They’ve had their chance to support legislation introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in February of this year that would do just this, but it has fallen to the side without even being considered by the pertinent committees in the House and Senate. The easy passage of Pompeo’s bill through the House reveals that food industry concerns may sometimes weigh heavier than constituent concerns.
A consistent issue in the general discussion of GMOs is the narrow focus on the promise of biotechnology in answering the many problems farmers face, such as drought, pests, and soil loss, while ignoring legitimate concerns. These concerns include contamination for non-GE farmers, pest and weed resistance that accompanies these GE crop technology packages, and corporate control and homogenization of our seed supply.
While it has become increasingly clear that the majority of Americans may not understand what a GMO is, let alone DNA, it does not imply that we should limit the information available on the package based on the assumption that lack of understanding equates to fear-based rejection. Rather, we should exercise the same logic that we use with country of origin labeling, which is based on consumer access to information that can assist in purchasing decisions.
Much like consumers around the world, American consumers’ priorities vary from health, price, and preparation time, to taste preferences amongst many more. By adding a straightforward, back-of-package label to the ingredients list, such as “contains genetically modified corn,” of a food product, the United States would be joining 64 other countries that require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Carla Curle is a second-year AFE student. She is also involved in the interdisciplinary Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program and is a firm believer that systems approaches to addressing problems will be the wave of the future. Also a co-chair of Slow Foods Tufts, you can find Carla nerding out over coffee, fermented items of any kind, and locally grown veggies. You can contact Carla at firstname.lastname@example.org.