Will the New National GMO Labeling Law Help Consumers Get the Information They Want?

It's finally happened. On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed the first national GMO labeling bill (S. 764 )into law, preempting existing and future state-level labeling bills like Vermont's bill, which went into effect on July 1. Over the past couple of years, food manufacturers have spent millions of dollars trying to block efforts to pass GMO labeling laws on the state and national level. Now that a federal labeling law is on the books, the Grocery Manufacturer's Association and other trade organizations have dropped their lawsuit to challenge the more stringent Vermont law and block it from going into effect.

S. 764 marks the end of many years of campaigning and lobbying efforts by the food and agriculture industries to get Congress to preempt state labeling efforts - and jumpstarted the next phase in the GMO labeling fight, which will take place at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA now has two years to go through a process called "rulemaking," where staff will have to figure out exactly how the law will be implemented, what foods will require a GMO label and what ingredients count as "genetically modified" under the law.  

The new national GMO labeling law now requires food companies to label items with genetically modified ingredients using one of three options: on-package language (as Vermont required), a USDA-designed symbol, or a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone. It also gives the USDA authority to audit companies that fail to comply with the law, but not the power to fine them or pull their unlabeled products off the shelves - that's what existing consumer protection laws are for.

Now that GMO labeling has moved to the rulemaking phase, both food industry groups and consumer advocacy organizations will work to influence the USDA's decisions on what the GMO label should look like, the amount of genetically engineered (GE) contents a product must contain to require a label and other related regulations.

Why Label GMO Foods?

Until now, the Federal Government hasn't require genetically engineered foods to be labeled, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that GE foods aren't "materially different" from other foods, and therefore don't require special labeling. As a result, the FDA also doesn't conduct independent safety tests before allowing GE foods on the market. GMO labeling advocates have pushed for mandatory labels on GE foods to "prevent inadvertent consumer confusion or deception, prevent potential risks to human health, protect religious practices and protect the environment."

This argument highlights the two main concerns consumers typically point to about eating genetically engineered food - potential health impacts of eating the products and the environmental impacts of growing them. While scientists have found little to no evidence to date about the negative health impacts of eating genetically engineered products, there is data suggesting that the production of genetically engineered crops has led to a major increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate - or Roundup, its brand name - which the World Health Organization found to be a probable carcinogen. But the impacts of glyphosate aren't limited to people. The herbicide has been found to reduce biodiversity around farms and has been linked to the dramatic decline in monarch butterfly populations. Labeling genetically engineered foods would allow consumers to avoid products that were produced using agricultural practices that they do not approve of.

Opponents and Research Say: QR Code GMO Labels Won't Work

Under the S. 764, the USDA also has a year to complete a study of whether electronic labeling and online labels, including QR codes, provide sufficient access to the required information - something bill opponents like Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) argued wouldn't work and aren't good enough.  In a letter to Barack Obama, a coalition of nearly 300 farmer, consumer,  health and environmental groups argued that the provision that "allows companies to conceal genetically engineered ingredient information behind QR Codes, websites or 800 numbers," requiring consumers to have internet access and a smartphone to determine what's in their food, "is confusing and discriminatory." They assert that shoppers don't have time to make a call or use a smartphone to scan every item they want to buy, and that the provision will make it especially hard for consumers in rural areas and low-income shoppers who are less likely to have smartphones, adequate data plans or good network coverage to find information they want about what's in their food.

Recent research seems to support this perspective. Today, only 68 percent of adults in the US have a smartphone, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, and of those consumers, few, if any, ever use QR codes when shopping. According to a new Annenberg Science Knowledge (ASK) study on QR codes from the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, less than half of respondents polled said they were likely to scan a QR code on food packaging to find out if a product contains GMO ingredients. The survey - which questioned 1,011 US adults in late July - found that 40 percent of respondents were somewhat or very likely to scan a QR code, while 21 percent said they were unlikely to do so and 38 percent said they wouldn't. This study is backed up by a poll done by the Environmental Working Group back in December that found that 88 percent of respondents preferred on-package disclosure and only 16 percent said they had ever scanned a QR code.

Food Manufacturers Prefer QR Codes

However, most food and agriculture groups would rather have QR codes on their products than on-packaging language added by companies, like Campbell's Soup Co.,discolsing that a product has GE ingredients. This most likely due to the fact that food companies know that QR codes are rarely used and that research says GM foods are probably safe to eat. Ultimately, companies don't want to scare consumers from purchasing their product if consumers know that it contains GMOs. This too is backed up by research. The ASK QR Code study also found that nearly half of Americans said that they would be much less likely (31 percent) or somewhat less likely (18 percent) to purchase a food product if they learned that it contained GE ingredients. About 42 percent of respondents said that learning that a food had GE components would make no difference in their intention to buy that product.

Response: A GMO "Buycott"?

In response to the new law, almost 500,000 people have signed onto a campaign from the pro-labeling Organic Consumers Association to stop buying food products that label GMOs with QR codes - which the group calls "the Mark of Monsanto". The OCA also asks consumers to stop purchasing products from members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry group made up of more than 300 food and biotech companies- including Monsanto, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestle- that spent almost $400 million over the last four years to fight mandatory GMO labeling laws.

What You Can Do

Want to avoid GE foods but don't want to bother with a QR code scanner or buycott? Here are three easy things you can do:

  • Eat USDA certified organic foods. USDA regulations prohibit organic foods from containing GE ingredients, and organic meats cannot come from animals that were fed GE crops. So eating organic is a surefire way to avoid GE foods.
  • Look for foods that are labeled GMO-free. Today, almost all major brands have GMO ingredients, including many processed foods that contain sugar made from GE sugar beets, corn syrup or soy ingredients. Visit the Center for Food Safety's website to find out what brands you can eat and what you should avoid.
  • Learn more about the differences between Organic and Non-GMO foods by listening to this new story from NPR.