GMO Anti-Labeling Bill (“DARK Act”) is Now Law

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Surveys have repeatedly shown that nine out of ten Americans favor the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Meanwhile, concerns about GE foods have been growing. Perhaps the most well documented reason for concern is the danger of glyphosate, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup®, the world’s most widely used weed-killer, and is used in tandem with the most popular type of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops such as Roundup Ready® corn and soybeans. In the U.S. and Europe, tests find glyphosate in most people’s urine.

Honest Weight and other food cooperatives have sought ways to inform their shoppers about the GMO status of food products, so they could easily choose to avoid GMOs. However, unless a food item or product is certified organic or certified as GMO-free, this has proven to be close to impossible

Why you shouldn’t be fooled by the new law

When the U.S. enacted a so-called GMO labeling law at the end of July, there might have seemed reason to celebrate. However, the American public would be foolish to expect the new labeling law to result in easy-to-find labels on GMO-containing foods. Opponents to the new law have been accurate in calling this dishonest piece of legislation the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.

While the DARK Act appears to require that food companies make information available about GMO ingredients in products, it is rife with loopholes and weaknesses. For instance, rather than labeling food packages, companies will be allowed to use QR codes (requiring the use of a smart phone which more than 100 million Americans, like me, do not own.)
Alternatively, they could print an internet address or 800-number on the label, where consumers could seek more information. Is that how you want to spend your time when you go shopping?

Under the new law, many ingredients coming from genetically engineered crops or other organisms may not require labeling. Its definition of genetic engineering is extremely vague and limited.

• Products that do not contain “genetic material” are exempted from the law. According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), oils, starches, and purified proteins do not contain genetic material.

• No disclosure is required if the genetic modification could have been made through ‘conventional’ breeding. It is not clear how the FDA will define conventional breeding or rule on whether or not a claim of conventional breeding is credible.

The DARK Act also pre-empts state seed labeling laws, such as those in Vermont and West Virginia, designed to inform farmers about the GMO status of seeds in the marketplace.

To make matters even worse, the law lacks any penalties or other enforcement mechanism. The FDA will have two years to develop regulations for this sham of a right-to-know law.

Why the Law Passed This Summer

Numerous public interest organizations, such as Food & Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, Cornucopia, and Consumers Union had been leading a campaign against the Dark Act since it was first proposed in 2014. But, despite mobilizing millions of people to oppose the bill, they didn’t succeed in stopping it this summer.

That’s because Vermont’s GMO labeling law, the first in the nation, was slated to go into effect on July 1, 2016. Big food, agriculture, and the agrichemical lobby, led by Monsanto, worried that GMO labeling in one state would cause a domino effect. In a way they were correct. Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO labeling laws that will only go into effect when several other contiguous states also pass such laws.

The effectiveness and ramifications of Vermont’s GMO labeling law also made it a prime target for those with a vested interest in GMOs. To comply with the Vermont law, major food companies like Campbell’s® Soup, Mars Inc., PepsiCo, Nestlé, and General Mills had already started to label their products nationally. And some companies decided it would be more expedient to simply eliminate GMO ingredients altogether to ensure compliance with Vermont’s labeling law.

How The DARK Act was passed

In the face of this “threat” to important donors, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the DARK Act. Thus, in the Senate, no hearings on the bill were held and no committee debated it. Then, despite an outcry by a coalition of consumer, food safety, farm, environmental, and religious groups and a petition to the White House, President Obama promptly signed it into law.

In previous fights over GMO labeling laws, such as the referenda in California and other western states, consumer and organic farming constituencies and their allies lined up against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which provided money and lobbying power to block labeling. In those states, those favoring GMO labeling pressured organic companies to relinquish their membership in the GMA.

But in the latest round of the struggle, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) went over to the DARK side. The OTA publicly supported the non-GMO labeling law as “a compromise” and as the best that could be achieved. It even criticized organic farm and organic food producers who opposed the legislation, as dividing the organic movement!

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) responded by dropping its OTA membership. The OSGATA president and Maine organic seed farmer, Jim Gerritsen said, “It’s important for the world to understand that it was the Organic Trade Association that killed our state GMO labeling laws, by backing Monsanto’s Stabenow-Roberts bill. It’s clear that the Organic Trade Association has come under the control of a small group of lobbyists controlled by giant-food corporations that also own organic brands.”

Is America Number One on This Issue?

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety, made this statement:
“I don’t know what kind of legacy the president hopes to leave, but denying one-third of Americans the right to know what is in the food they feed their families isn’t one to be proud of. This law is a sham and a shame, a rushed backroom deal that discriminates against low-income, rural, minority, and elderly populations. The law also represents a major assault on the democratic decision making of several states and erases their laws with a vague multi-year bureaucratic process specifically designed to provide less transparency to consumers.”

It is a sad day in America when we are denied even “the promise” of a Right to Know about the GMO status of our food. The citizens of most developed nations of the world, from most of Europe to Japan, secured the right to know about GMO foods over a decade ago.

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Tracy Frisch has been an Honest Weight shareholder since 1989. She has a long history of involvement in environmental issues, from recycling to pesticides to sustainable agriculture. A freelance journalist, she writes for Acres USA, The Sun magazine, and Hill Country Observer. She homesteads in Argyle, NY, 43 miles north of Albany.