In a few days here at The Walk a Mile Project,we will wrap up our 2nd GMO Investigation sequence, focused on GMO labeling in the USA. Today, however, it’s time for the final investigation post, as we document exactly what the Senate gave us for a federal standard, when they passed the Senate GMO labeling law on July 15th, when they passed Bill S.764.
If you’d like to read the bill in its entirety at any point, click here. Now let’s get right to it…
Before we dive into all the details, here’s a quick summary of what the new Senate GMO labeling law does:
1. No state can enact its own GMO labeling standard
2. The label can now “be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link”
3. The final standard needs to determined by the Secretary of Agriculture, who has up to two years to complete this task.
4. The “electronic or digital disclosure methods” (read: QR codes, etc.) must be studied by the Secretary of Agriculture within a year to “identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure”
5. Not properly labeling is deemed a “prohibited act”, but the bill grants absolutely zero authority to enforce any violations.
As you probably know, this law was written to pre-empt the work done by Vermont, whose state labeling law took effect on July 1st, 2016. Here’s how the Senate GMO labeling law, to the letter, undercuts Vermont (punctuation added by yours truly to help make the dang thing readable!):
“No State or political subdivision of a State may directly (or indirectly) establish under any authority, or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce, any requirement relating to the labeling or disclosure of whether a food is bioengineered or was developed or produced using bioengineering, for a food that is the subject of the national bioengineered food disclosure standard under this section – that is not identical to the mandatory disclosure requirement under that standard.”
Bottom line – the federal standard is the end-all-be-all of labeling standards in the USA for bioengineered food, and as long as the Senate GMO labeling law is on the books, there will be no state laws providing any alternatives.
A CLEAR LABEL IS NO LONGER REQUIRED
Vermont required a handful of crystal clear words to appear on its labels, pretty straightforward. Manufacturers could either use “Produced with genetic engineering” or “Partially produced with genetic engineering”, depending on the level of GE ingredients in the product. Those words would simply be added to the food label.
The new federal law, however, gives four different choices:
“a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link… with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer.”
If using the electronic or digital link option, the product needs a “scan here for more food information”
or “call for more food information” option on the label, and it must also include “a telephone number that provides access to the bioengineering disclosure.”
So what exactly does this all mean? Well, time will tell. Part of the electronic link or digital link options are of course referring to QR codes, but there is no clear explanation provided here. As you’ll see below, we’re now on the “Hey let’s take two more years and figure this out” plan.
Regardless, the big question is this – how will food manufacturers choose to comply? A QR code may be more of a hassle to maintain than just writing some extra text on a label, and international manufacturers, who likely label their products in other countries already, may decide that just adding text to foods sold in the US is the easiest choice.
In other words, despite all the ruckus here, the Senate GMO labeling law may still have a solid effect on labels (eventually) – it’s just too early to tell, especially when the new standard won’t be here for up to two years. Of course, if a manufacturer doesn’t want a clear, written label identifying the GE ingredients in its products, it can throw a QR code on there instead and know that barely anyone will actually look into it.
And by the way, the law actually says “not later than 2 years”, which very likely means it will take pretty darn close to the full two years, because…
NOW HOLDING THE REINS – THE US SECERETARY OF AGRICULTURE
That Secretary of Agriculture I just mentioned happens to be the very biotech friendly Tom Vilsack.
According to the new law, and again within two years as mentioned, the Secretary shall:
(1) establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered; and
(2) establish such requirements and procedures as the Secretary determines necessary to carry out the standard.
Also, within a year –
“The Secretary shall conduct a study to identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods.”
By the way, that also includes soliciting and considering comments from the public, which should make for some really interesting comments on whichever government website that project winds up.
In all fairness, however, the language in here actually is very pro-consumer –
“The study… shall consider whether consumer access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods under this subtitle would be affected by the following factors:
(A)The availability of wireless Internet or cellular networks.
(B)The availability of landline telephones in stores.
(C)Challenges facing small retailers and rural retailers.
(D)The efforts that retailers and other entities have taken to address potential technology and infrastructure challenges.
(E)The costs and benefits of installing in retail stores electronic or digital link scanners or other evolving technology that provide bioengineering disclosure information.
Finally, it also requires that, if the study shows “consumers, while shopping, would not have sufficient access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods, the Secretary, after consultation with food retailers and manufacturers, shall provide additional and comparable options to access the bioengineering disclosure.”
TOM VILSACK – BIOTECH/ORGANIC ENIGMA?
Sounds like Tom’s going to be a busy fella over the next 24 months, and assuming that he stays on as Secretary of Agriculture after the 2016 election (a big assumption in the current political environment), he’ll definitely have some eyes on him throughout this process. So – should we be concerned?
Well first of all, after following congressional behavior on GMO labeling for over 18 months, I’d say that, in general, we all need to be concerned about most things going on in Washington. Focusing just on Tom Vilsack, however, well… he can be difficult to read these days.
On the one hand, back in 2001 he was named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (a trade group representing biotech heavy hitters like Monsanto, etc.)—for his “support of the industry’s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.” He also chaired the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, and overall, Tom’s been a big champion of GMOs.
How much of a champion? According to Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food and Water Watch, Vilsack’s USDA “has been the most GMO-friendly ever.” For example, a 2011 landmark USDA decision to approve Kentucky bluegrass engineered to resist glyphosate, set a precedent for greenlighting future GMO crops without any assessment of environmental impact.
Also in 2011, Tom’s USDA deregulated glyphosate-resistant alfalfa, even after acknowledging that the crop could cross-pollinate with organic and non-GM alfalfa. Later in 2015, a USDA study confirmed that GM alfalfa does promiscuously cross-pollinate.
His USDA also approved crops engineered to resist multiple herbicides, in response to the issue of herbicide resistant weeds. These new crops are designed to withstand “both glyphosate and older, more toxic herbicides, which some scientists warn may create even more resistance, leading to even more herbicide use.”
IT’S, UHHHH… COMPLETELY, UHHH… SAFE
When it comes to GMO labeling, however, he offers mixed signals. Back in March of this year, in an interview with Politico, Tom clearly stated his opinion on GMO labeling –
“If you basically create an on-package label, you could potentially give consumers the mistaken impression that this is unsafe to consume. That would be wrong, based on the studies that I’ve seen, uhh… there is not anything, uhh… unsafe about GMO foods.” – Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
First of all, don’t hate on the insertion of the “uhh”s in that quote. They are completely relevant when he’s only uttering them during a very questionable statement. Second, Tommy Boy then offered a somewhat softer stance on this during an interview in Chicago, just days after the Politico interview. There he said –
“Because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that GMO food is unsafe to consume. You may not agree with the process. You may have disagreements about the science in terms of what’s better for the land and so forth. But at the end of the day, it’s not about food safety.”
A JAB AT MONSANTO?
In contrast, however, he also stated this, when discussing the potential use of QR codes –
“That’s certainly not the only way it should be done. There should be other ways. There should be an understanding that’s easier for a larger company than a smaller company. There should be enough time to educate consumers about where this information is, so when it kicks in, they know precisely where to look for the information. There’s a process the industry would have to go through and frankly they should have done this 20 years ago. But they didn’t, so now they’re playing catch-up.”
Yeah, that line about how this should have been done 20 years ago won’t sit too well with Monsanto and company, a strange deviation from his other comments. In addition, Tom is by no means anti-organic either, and in December 2015 he “announced the availability of $17.6 million in funding to support research and outreach activities that will help growers, producers, and processors find innovative ways to improve organic agriculture.”
He also had positive things to say about organic Cuba after visiting their very unique farmland back in December 2015 –
“I think they have an incredible opportunity in the future to be a major supplier of value-added organic products, simply because they have not utilized modern agricultural processes, have not used chemicals and pesticides and so forth that have been used in other parts of the world, including the US.” — Tom Vilsack on Cuba
So what do we say here at The Walk a Mile Project about the current head of the USDA? We say “Tom Vilsack – agricultural enigma.”
Bottom line, as you’ll see in our next post about transitioning away from the Senate GMO labeling law hub-bub, putting too much focus on GMO labeling, Tom Vilsack or any other government official is likely to be counter-productive at this point. That said, however, it’s important to know what we’re dealing with in our government, and it seems like Tom, although more likely to favor biotech, could certainly go either way if given the right information, like say, perhaps… the TRUTH (it is out there).
ENFORCEMENT, OR LACK THEREOF
To wrap this up, let’s talk about enforcement, because what’s a law if it’s not enforced (yeah, I’m looking at you, jaywalkers). Say what you want about QR codes, 800 numbers and true labels… the bottom line is simple – how will this new law be enforced? What happens if a company refuses to properly label its products produced with genetic engineering?
First, understand that this new law makes such refusal “a prohibited act”. Yes, that’s right, per the letter of the law, such action is clearly prohibited –
It shall be a prohibited act for a person to knowingly fail to make a disclosure as required under this section.”
Sounds serious, right? So what actually happens if you don’t comply? What are the consequences of failing to label your genetically engineered product… of performing this blatantly prohibited act? Now please, don’t get scared by all this retribution, but here’s what happens —
PENALTIES FOR FAILING TO LABEL YOUR GMOS
1. You can be audited –
(B)Notice and hearing
A person subject to an examination, audit, or similar activity under subparagraph (A) shall be provided notice and opportunity for a hearing on the results of any examination, audit, or similar activity.
2. Your audit will be made public (gasp!) –
After the notice and opportunity for a hearing under subparagraph (B), the Secretary shall make public the summary of any examination, audit, or similar activity under subparagraph (A).
The Secretary shall have no authority to recall any food subject to this subtitle on the basis of whether the food bears a disclosure that the food is bioengineered.
Yes, that’s correct. This law gives NO authority to actually enforce the law itself. None. Zero. Zilch. Now maybe that will come later, directly from the Secretary of Agriculture, but if it does, he sure wasn’t explicitly giving that kind of authority in this law itself. Instead, authority was explicitly taken away, per the #4 Recall Authority noted above.
Not to say that recalling food over a label like this is necessarily a good idea, but there must be a real consequence for not complying with the law. Unfortunately, in its current state, our GMO food labeling law has a quiet, ambiguous bark (is that a dog I hear, or a mouse?) and no bite whatsoever.
COMING UP NEXT…
We’ll be back soon to resolve this sequence with our 2nd GMO Truth declaration, and we’ll be following that up with our wrap-up podcast on GMO Labeling in the USA, which will also move us forward to the next very important phase of the GMO Controversy Documentary. For now, however, please take what you want from this wrap-up on the Senate GMO Labeling law, please share it everywhere you can (seriously, please do share it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. right now), and with the two sequences we’re working on next, we’ll see how much Walk a Mile can affect the way GMO labeling actually plays out over the next two years.