On July 29, 2016, President Barak Obama signed into law a new and controversial GMO labeling bill, outraging some critics. The new bipartisan bill (S. 764), drafted by Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), supersedes state laws, like those in effect in Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut. Critics believe that the new national laws water down some of the more strict state laws that do a better job of holding food manufacturers to an acceptable level of transparency about genetically modified ingredients in their food.
So why are critics of this law so up in arms? Simply put, critics believe that these new laws have too many loopholes and its language and definitions for what qualifies as a GMO may allow some genetically modified ingredients to slip by the labeling requirements. Consider this passage from the bill which states that foods must “contain genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques” and “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding found in nature.” This wording seems to indicate a workaround for companies that use ingredients in their food such as oils and sweeteners derived from genetically modified crops. This is due to the fact that that evidence of modifications can be erased during processing.
Also, an area of concern is in what ways the new labeling laws will force manufacturers to alert the consumer of GMOs. At present, it is believed that larger manufacturers will be required to place QR Codes or bar codes that consumers can scan with their smart device. This would presumably bring them to a web page that would give them a detailed rundown of product ingredients. Smaller sized companies would likely not have this same requirement, but would instead be allowed to post a 1-800 number on their packaging that consumers could call to get detailed ingredient information. Each scenario, say critics, would add a layer of inconvenience for consumers. Also, requiring a smart device in order to find out what products are in the food customers are thinking about buying seemingly discriminates against low-income consumers who may not be able to afford devices with smart technology.
A third prominent concern is that this bill, according to critics, essentially eliminates Americans from a right to vote for GMO labeling laws on a state level for the foreseeable future. In the interim, states like Alaska, which was the first state in the nation to pass GMO laws, might have to scale back their own labeling laws that call for prominent labeling alerting consumers about GMOs in their foods.
The bill is now in the hands of the USDA who have two years to come up with the finalized new GMO labeling laws.