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Farm Groups, Food Makers Cheer As Congress Passes A Looser GMO Labeling Law

Jeremy Bernfeld
Harvest Public Media
Many food companies began labeling food that has genetically-modified ingredients in anticipation of a Vermont law that kicked in July 1.

Food companies and farm groups were the victors Thursday with the passage of a federal bill establishing standards for the disclosure of genetically-modified ingredients in food products.

In a 306-117 vote, the U.S. House approved a bill that supersedes a much stricter law that went into effect in Vermont on July 1. The measure, pushed through the Senate last week, is expected to be signed by President Obama.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican who authored a House  bill passed last year that offered companies an even weaker standard for labeling, applauded the bipartisan compromise.

“While (the bill) is not perfect, it still prevents a nationwide patchwork of inconsistent state food labeling laws, which would have disastrous effects on food supply chains, our agriculture communities, and American families,” he said.

Colorado voters resoundingly rejected a mandatory GMO labeling measure in 2014, with 66 percent voting against, versus 34 percent in favor.

Losing the battle to have required on-package labels disclosing ingredients from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were advocates for organic food and others who promoted a consumer’s right to know what’s in their food.

The measure would give companies three options: text on food packaging, a QR (Quick Response) code, or a phone number or a website with more information.

Critics of the bill said the QR code would make it much more difficult for consumers to get the information. Others suggested it would discriminate against the poor and those who don’t use smart phones.

Federal regulators will have two years to write rules for how the industry complies the labeling.

William Hallman, chair of Human Ecology Department at Rutgers University, said the devil is in the details of the bill. It will be interesting to see how the U. S. Department of Agriculture interprets the definition of “bioengineering” used in the measure.

For instance, the bill says any food falling under that term must contain genetic material, or DNA. So despite the fact that the majority of the corn and soybean crop in the U.S. is grown from GMO seed, corn and soybean oil might not fall under the law because the refining process used to create the oils often leaves the product without evidence of genetically engineered DNA.

“So the question is: is soybean oil that comes from genetically modified soybeans, but has all of the DNA removed, a genetically modified ingredient?” he said. “It came from a genetically modified crop. But it has no trace of the genetically modified ingredient in it.”

The bill’s opponents made for strange political bedfellows – from the conservative Heritage Foundation who said the bill added “federal legitimacy” to the idea that GMOs aren’t safe, to the liberal Rev. Jesse Jackson who said the law presented “serious questions of discrimination.”

“100 million Americans, most of them poor, people of color and elderly either do not own a smart phone or an iPhone to scan the QR code or live in an area of poor internet connectivity,” he said. 

Luke Runyon contributed reporting to this story.

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.
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