The public comment period is now open on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's just unveiled proposal for food labeling of products using GMOs—a plan that would have labels without the words "genetically modified" or "genetically engineered," but instead adorned with cheerful images.
According to Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, the proposal represents "a gift to industry from our now Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who authored the legislation to squash the Vermont GMO labeling law and mandatory labels.”
The proposal follows President Barack Obama's 2016 signature on an industry-approved bill—dubbed the DARK Act—that required national labeling standard rules, and which critics blasted for having loopholees and lacking a mandate for adequate GMO labels. That law, which pre-empted Vermont's first-of-its-kind labeling law, also required a deadline for the final rules by July 29, 2018, hence the USDA's rollout this week.
Among the problems with the proposal, says Hauter, is that the "rule refers to GMOs as 'bioengineered,' or BE foods. This is a deceptive strategy because most consumers don't know what that means."
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety, agreed, saying, "USDA's exclusion of the well-established terms, GE and GMO, as options will confuse and mislead consumers, and the agency must instead allow the use of those terms."
As for the images that will bear the acronym BE—"Wait 'till you see them," writes Katherine Paul, associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. "All bright and cheery, with sunburst and smiley-faced images—but without 'GMO' appearing anywhere on the labels."
— Organic Consumers (@OrganicConsumer) May 4, 2018
"The images are just as insulting to consumers as the law, which the chemical and junk food industry lobbyists spent $400 million to pass—under the specious name of the 'Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act,'" Paul said.
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The problems go beyond the symbol, say food safety groups.
"One of the many loopholes," Hauter added, is that it "would allow a company that knowingly sells canned GMO sweetcorn to use a label that says 'may be bioengineered' because less than 85 percent of sweetcorn grown is genetically engineered."
In addition, it would allow companies to use electronic QR codes, instead of a clear symbol, which would necessitate consumers having a clear internet connection, a smart phone, and the time for the hassle it would take to scan them.
"USDA should not allow QR codes," Kimbrell said bluntly. "USDA's own study found that QR codes are inherently discriminatory against one third of Americans who do not own smartphones, and even more so against rural, low income, and elderly populations or those without access to the internet. USDA should mandate on-package text or symbol labeling as the only fair and effective means of disclosure for GE foods."
In sum, the groups say, the proposal leaves consumers in the dark.
"This is a 'Call to Action' to all Americans who have waited for decades to finally have GE foods labeled," says Kimbrell. "Now is the time to tell the Trump administration to do the right thing and meaningfully label these foods."