Opinion: Congress running out of time on GMO labels

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Big Ag Watch

File photo.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

As of today, there are just 43 days before Vermont’s GMO labeling law takes effect on July 1.

This week, Congress is back in town to decide if it can bridge differences between Republicans and Democrats to short-circuit Vermont’s GMO labeling measure, which would effectively become the law of the land even though it’s just a state law.

Previous efforts by the Senate Ag Committee and its two leaders — Ag Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) — have gone nowhere fast. The last time an anti-GMO bill was discussed, Roberts offered up a plan that would give the powerful lobbying group the Grocery Manufacturers Association two years to get industry-wide approval of its SmartLabel electronic labeling program.

But, said Democrats, why require consumers to use a smart phone (or website for that matter) to find out if groceries contain GMO’s when you could just say so on the label?

So, here Congress sits with no clear path forward. The hurdles are significant but generally boil down to two issues: Can Roberts find more Democrat votes with a plan that doesn’t include GMO information directly on labels? And, if such a law somehow does get through the Senate, will the House vote in favor of it?

Meanwhile, a flock of big food producers think they know the answers to both those questions: Uh, no.

Some companies have already begun labeling products as “containing GMOs,” including General Mills, Mars, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg and Campbell Soup.

More will likely sign up soon.

A huge fight is also underway whether food producers should be required to put GMO labels on meat and dairy products where the cattle were fed GMOs.

Florida District Court Judge Marcia Cooke ruled recently that Chipotle gave consumers false information in its G-M-OVER IT campaign, suggesting selling meat and dairy products from animals fed GMOs amounted to false advertising.

Chipotle tried to paint plaintiff Leslie Reilly as something of an eccentric quack for suggesting “no GMOs” means no GMOs period. Cooke had none of it, as reported by Food Navigator in April:

“More evidence is needed to establish both a definition of the term (non-GMO) and whether a reasonable consumer would share Ms. Relly’s interpretation of the term.”

Dannon Company made something of a splash when last month it promised to eliminate GMO ingredients by sourcing non-GMO feed for its dairy cattle.

Perhaps overlooked in all this GMO hand wringing is this little key nugget: No federal agency to date has ever defined just what constitutes a GMO!

Let that sink in for a moment.

Nor has the current debate in the Senate Ag Committee brought forth language in its anti-GMO bill defining just what the heck is a GMO.

Stay tuned.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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