WASHINGTON – The White House plans to support legislation creating a national labeling standard for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO), even though consumer groups criticize the bill for allowing information to live behind special codes and for allowing an exemption for meat and eggs.
“While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers’ interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops,” White House spokeswoman Katie Hill said in an e-mail. “We look forward to tracking its progress in the House and anticipate the President would sign it in its current form.”
The Senate-passed labeling bill is to be taken up in the House this week. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has signaled his approval, making it more likely the proposal will pass the chamber and end up on Obama’s desk.
Under the legislation, which has been pushed for by companies including Monsanto Co. and Wal-Mart and groups including the National Corn Growers Association, consumers may still find it hard to figure out if the food they are buying is genetically modified, leading opponents to dub the bill the DARK Act.
The law doesn’t mandate printing “GMO” on the exterior, instead offering three options for disclosure: text on the packaging, a symbol, or an electronic link that would direct consumers to a website for more information.
Beef, pork, poultry and eggs wouldn’t be subject to labeling, though the deal would cover many other grocery staples, including cornflakes and cooking oil. The bill also would tightly define genetic engineering in ways the biotech industry wanted, not including new techniques such as gene editing.
State-imposed labeling requirements would be banned and producers that have secured a “certified organic” designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be allowed to clearly display a “non-GMO” label on their products.
The push for a nationwide standard is in response to a law that took effect in Vermont on July 1 requiring disclosure of GMO ingredients on food labels. That rule, plus other initiatives in Maine, Connecticut and other states, has food companies and commodity growers concerned about a patchwork of state laws that would impede commerce, expose them to fines, needlessly scare consumers about safe products and force expensive reformulations of food products to become GMO-free.
General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg Co., ConAgra Foods Inc. and Mars Inc. have all developed new labels to comply with Vermont, which has defended its law in courts and in Congress.
But pre-empting Vermont with an industry-friendly law will thwart the goal of helping consumers know where their food comes from, said Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group. “This bill is a travesty, an undemocratic and discriminatory bill which pre-empts state laws, while offering no meaningful labeling for GMOs,” Perls said.
Under the legislation, the USDA has two years to write rules, which will take time because of complexity within food production. For example, when a majority of a product is made with meat, no GMO label would be required. In the case of a pepperoni pizza, for instance, a label would be needed if the flour in the crust came from GMO grain, according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who helped craft the bill.