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The controversial GMO labeling bill that just passed Congress, explained

Labels, labels everywhere.
(Shutterstock)

For months, Congress has been agonizing over what to do about labels for genetically modified foods. Various states have debated labeling for years. But the issue suddenly gained urgency on July 1, when Vermont became the first state in the country to require GMO labels in grocery stores.

Many food manufacturers despised Vermont’s law; they’ve been pulling their products from the state’s shelves and lobbying Congress to stop the law. Their big complaint was that if states enact their own GMO labeling laws, it would create an unworkable "patchwork" of local rules.

Now we're close to a resolution of sorts. On July 7, the Senate voted 63-30 to pass a bill that would preempt state laws like Vermont’s and replace them with a single national GMO labeling standard. On July 14, the House approved the bill by a 306 to 117 vote.

The new bill will require all food manufacturers to disclose any GM ingredients in their products. But there’s a twist: Companies can place a disclosure directly on the package. Or, if they think those labels too inflammatory, they can instead offer a digital QR code on the package that consumers would have to scan with their smartphones to get information on GM ingredients (something few people tend to do).

The bill now just needs to be signed by President Obama — and the White House has already signaled that he will do so.

Various industry groups are pleased with the Senate's bill — since it eliminates the messy patchwork — but others on both sides of this issue are displeased. Pro-labeling groups think the QR codes will be too easily ignored and say this will kill off opportunities for stricter labeling in the future. Opponents of labeling, meanwhile, argue that the whole issue is ridiculous, given the ample science showing that GM foods are just as safe to eat as regular foods. Let’s take a look.

What does Congress's GMO labeling bill actually do?

The future of GMO labeling
(Shutterstock)

The bill, the result of an agreement forged between Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), includes the following provisions:

  • All food manufacturers will be required to disclose whether they use genetically modified ingredients in the products they sell in grocery stores.
  • But those companies have a choice: They can either put a text statement or symbol directly on the food packaging itself indicating GM ingredients. Or, alternatively, they could include a digital QR code that customers would have to scan with their smartphone if they want to learn about GM ingredients.
  • Smaller companies will also have a fourth option: offering a phone number or URL on the package that consumers can access for more info.

Now what counts as a "genetically engineered ingredient"? Here’s where things get tricky.

What gets labeled: The bill defines "bioengineering" to include any food that contains genetic material developed through recombinant DNA techniques — that is, the process of transferring genes from one organism to another. These are traits that would not otherwise occur in nature or through conventional breeding.

In theory, that should apply to a great many products. After all, 90 percent of corn and soy grown in the United States has been genetically engineered for pest resistance or herbicide tolerance (or both). And some 75 percent of processed foods in our stores typically contain at least one ingredient made with GM crops, such as high-fructose corn syrup or soy lecithin.

In addition, 90 percent of cheese in the US is made with genetically engineered rennet. (Scientists do this so that rennet doesn’t have to be harvested from the stomach lining of calves.) There are also a small handful of fruits and vegetables that have been genetically modified, such as disease-resistant papaya.

That said, there is a bit of ambiguity in the bill’s text. It technically says food has to "contain" modified genetic material, not simply come from a crop that’s been genetically modified. Why does that matter? Because many oils and sweeteners that come from GM crops no longer contain the specific modified DNA after they’ve been processed. The bill’s opponents worry those ingredients might be exempt. The bill’s backers, including Stabenow, say they won’t be. Ultimately, the US Department of Agriculture will have authority under the bill to decide this.

What’s exempted: The bill will not mandate labeling for any traits developed through RNA interference or through gene editing. These newer genetic engineering techniques are becoming increasingly popular since they don’t always fall under existing regulations. (Take, for instance, this white button mushroom that had a gene silenced via CRISPR to prevent browning.) The USDA says it does, however, have the authority to label such foods if deemed necessary.

The bill would also not require labeling for any animals raised on genetically engineered feed (such as soy or corn). And it excludes foods served in restaurants.

How did Vermont force Congress to take up GMO labeling?

Hey, don’t blame us!
(Shutterstock)

In 2014, Vermont passed a law that would require various foods in the state’s grocery stores containing GM ingredients to be labeled as such — the first in the nation. That law went into effect on July 1, 2016.

Unlike the Senate bill, Vermont’s law exempted a whole slew of products, including cheese and various meat products. (Weirdly, any processed food that contained both a GM ingredient and meat was exempted under Vermont’s law; so a frozen cheese pizza might get labeled but a pepperoni pizza wouldn’t. The Senate bill would close this loophole.) But it still affected a huge portion of processed foods.

That left food manufacturers with a choice. It’s not easy to make separate labels just for one state. So companies could either add GMO labels to all of their products nationwide — as General Mills and Campbell’s Soup decided to do — or they could stop selling products in Vermont altogether.

Many companies chose the latter, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi. According to the Northfield News, Price Chopper in Vermont said they would no longer be offering products such as "Del Monte fruits, some Hostess products ... Sabra Hummus, some Heinz Ketchup, Sage Valley nuts, Bob Evans foods, Louisiana Fish Fry products, Sea Gold Seafood and some Starbucks products."

In the meantime, groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association lobbied Congress to block Vermont’s law.

Suddenly, Congress could no longer ignore the issue. In March, Roberts tried to fast-track a bill through the Senate that would nullify Vermont’s law and make labeling purely voluntary nationwide. That was opposed by many Democrats and failed. So, more recently, Roberts worked across the aisle with Stabenow to arrive at a compromise.

The new bill aims for a mushy middle ground. There will be a single national standard and Vermont’s law will be void. Yet the digital QR code option gives food manufacturers the option of avoiding a glaring "contains GMOs" label on their packaging, which many feared would simply stigmatize a technology that poses no special risk to public health. (By contrast, many supporters of GMO labeling explicitly hope it will create a stigma around the technology.)

Are GMO labels actually informative?

delicious food jb
Spot the GMO.
(Shutterstock)

Not particularly. Sorry!

The fact that a plant’s genes have been altered through recombinant DNA techniques — rather than conventional crossbreeding or radiation breeding (allowed in organic food!) or RNA interference or whatever — is simply not very meaningful.

Virtually all of the food in our stores, conventional or organic or GMO or otherwise, has had its genes altered in some way. The mere fact that crop scientists and breeders used one technique to do so rather than another is about as informative to the consumer as whether a car part was made by robots or human workers.

What would be meaningful is to hear more about what specific altered traits a plant or animal actually has — and what those traits mean. Was this corn modified with a Bt gene for pest resistance? If so, that may have allowed farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides and preserve local biodiversity. Good news! Was this soybean modified to be resistant to Roundup? If so, there may be concerns about weed resistance, although that really depends on the farmers’ practice.

But you won’t learn any of that from a simple label that says "contains genetically modified ingredients." That phrase tells you nothing. At worst, it just perpetuates the scientifically unsupportable belief that modern-day genetic engineering is something horrifying to be shunned. At best, it’s just empty words on packaging.

Now, it’s true that (some) polls have found 80 percent of consumers support GMO labeling. But polls have also found 80 percent of consumers support labeling any food that contains DNA — which is all food. A label that says "contains DNA" would be equally meaningless.

It could be interesting, someday, to have QR codes that lead to clearer information around food. What kinds of traits does this food have? How was it grown? What does that mean for farmers and health and the environment? But right now that’s not on the table.

Who supports the Senate’s GMO labeling bill? Who hates it?

Bernie Sanders
Not a fan.
Scott Olson/Getty

Some industry groups are pleased with the compromise, if only because it gets rid of the Vermont headache. Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, likes it because it "prevents a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling laws."

Yet there are people on both sides of the labeling question who are dissatisfied. The Center for Food Safety, which has long pushed for GMO labeling, thinks the QR code option is a cop-out, a way for food manufacturers to disclose their ingredients quietly. The group notes that only 64 percent of Americans have a smartphone, and few people ever look at these codes.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was also leading the push to kill the Senate bill, arguing that it exempted too many genetic editing techniques and that a QR code is too opaque. Like many opponents, he calls it the DARK Act:

(By the way, Sanders' photos illustrate how much of a sideshow GMO labeling can be. The biggest concern by far with eating a bag of M&Ms or drinking a Coke is that they are processed junk food and not very healthy. That has nothing whatsoever to do with genetic engineering. And there's no warning label for that!)

Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, says he likes the fact that there’s a nationwide mandatory labeling system. (It should be pointed out that organic food manufacturers benefit from any stigma around GMOs, since organic food has to be GMO-free and can easily be labeled as such. They are just as self-interested here as biotech firms.) However, Hirschberg dislikes the QR code and argues that the next fight will be with the US Department of Agriculture, which will be heavily involved in crafting what the labels look like.

On the opposite side are those who argue that labels are completely unnecessary — an extra cost that offers no meaningful benefit. That includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, which points out (rightly) that there are no special health risks from genetic engineering. It also includes some Republicans who are pushing for a purely voluntary standard nationwide that would preempt Vermont’s law.

Another opponent, Jonathan Adler of Case Western University, argues that GMO labels could even be unconstitutional under the First Amendment, since any law that compels companies into speech usually has to be justified by a substantial public interest. On this view, a mere "right to know" doesn’t count.

So what happens next?

Now that the bill has passed the Senate and House, the White House just to sign the bill into law. After that, the Department of Agriculture will work with food manufacturers on the exact design of both the labels on the packaging and the QR codes. Expect plenty of lobbying around those decisions, if it comes to that.

Further reading:

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