Senate stands with consumers on GMO labels

A bill to stop state GMO labeling laws was blocked decisively in the Senate today – failing by 11 votes. 

Bill Wenzel

When Senators go toe-to-toe on votes about consumers’ rights, make no mistake: your voice matters. This vote was no different. Walking out of the Capitol building today, it was clear to me: every call and email to Senators mattered. I’m grateful to all the PIRG members who took action to make sure our Senators protected our right to know how our food is produced.

The food industry and its allies launched their first major attack against GMO labeling laws with an industry-developed piece of legislation – what has become known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act — that passed through the House of Representatives last July. This month its counterpart (S. 2609) was fast-tracked through the Senate — right into a brick wall.

Hundreds of consumers helped build that wall when they called and emailed their Senators in the week leading up to the vote on March 16th.  As a result of their action, further debate on the bill was blocked decisively – failing by 11 votes.  If that’s not grassroots power in action, I don’t know what is.

That victory is a great thing for state and consumer rights. Two years ago, in lieu of national labelling standards for genetically-modified foods, Vermont passed the nation’s first labeling law that would go into effect July 1st, 2016. The law reflects the widely-held belief that consumers have the right and should have the ability to know how their food is produced. According to a recent poll, 90% of Americans support mandatory GMO labels. Connecticut and Maine have passed similar laws contingent on nearby states following suit, and numerous other states are actively considering adopting mandatory labeling laws of their own.

Major food, farm and biotech seed companies retaliated by spending more than $100 million just last year to lobby against labeling efforts, according to a lobbying disclosure analysis from the Environmental Working Group. With this bill, they nearly succeeded.

As if preempting those state laws wasn’t enough, the Senate bill would have also:

  • Enshrined the existing, voluntary labeling system that has failed to provide GMO labels.
  • Made it harder for companies like Campbell’s Soup to voluntarily disclose the presence of genetically-modified ingredients.
  • Implemented 1-800 numbers, URLs, QR codes, or even social media as suitable labeling alternatives, only after five years if there is not “sufficient participation” in the voluntary system instead of providing clear, concise on-package labeling.

These sorts of convoluted so-called compromises seem destined to produce headaches, for both consumers and producers. So, if you think about it, the responsible solution to industry arguments that state-based laws would hurt producers would be to establish a uniform, national mandatory labeling standard.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that, instead, attacks on state laws will keep on coming. Food industry lobbyists have been and will continue to try to preserve the current, broken voluntary labeling system that leaves consumers in the dark about the food we buy. Proposals are getting trickier, with alternative labels like call-in numbers and QR codes masquerading as viable compromises. But we won’t be fooled. If you’re like me, having to call a 1-800 number to get full disclosure about the ingredients in every product we buy seems absurd, and substantially more convoluted than simple labels on products.

Pushback to mandatory labels leverages a few key pieces of misinformation, but the reality is that:

  • GMO labeling will not increase food prices. Companies frequently change labels to highlight changes in recipes or test new marketing, without imposing a higher cost on consumers.
  • There is no “patchwork quilt” of state labeling laws. Current state GMO labeling laws are virtually identical — a compelling effort to fill a glaring hole in federal policy through collective state action.
  • Voluntary labeling will not work. Simply put, voluntary labeling is the system we currently have. Companies have been allowed to disclose GMOs since 2001.
  • Many consumer concerns about GMOs are warranted. In 2015, 89% of corn, 94% of soybeans, and 89% of cotton produced in the US were genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. As a result, GMO crops have increased herbicide applications, particularly of glyphosate — a probable human carcinogen — making it the most widely used herbicide in history.

So celebrate that we blocked a bad bill — but stay tuned. This won’t be the last time you hear about the fight for our #righttoknow.

We’ll join our friends at Just Label It, Organic Consumers Association, Environmental Working Group, Consumer’s Union, and many others in continuing to fight for consumers’ right to know whether our food contains GMOs.


Bill Wenzel