Labeling Genetically Modified Food

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Conscientious consumers sans smartphones may soon be out of luck, because new GM-labeling laws allow QR codes to be the sole form of labeling.

Nine out of 10 U.S. consumers want to know whether their food has been derived from genetic engineering. And after many impassioned years of fighting for a national standard for labeling genetically modified (GM) foods, these consumers are finally getting what they’ve been asking for. Or are they?

In August 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law to establish a “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.” The legislation, co-written by Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, does require the establishment of national guidelines for labeling GM foods, but it falls short of the transparency many were pushing for.

A key element to this transparency problem is that instead of labels being required to actually read “made with genetically modified ingredients” or “contains genetically modified ingredients,” a package may simply be adorned with a QR code, one of those blocky, black-and-white symbols that can only be scanned and read with a smartphone. This means a smaller percentage of the public will get the information, because not everyone will scan the code — and, of course, not everyone owns a smartphone.

What counts as a “genetically modified food” under the new law? The bill says the product must actually contain genetic material that’s been modified, but doesn’t necessarily include products made from that modified material. For example, high-fructose corn syrup made from GM corn wouldn’t require the label. Additionally, even if livestock spend their lives eating feed packed with GM ingredients, the meat and dairy produced from that livestock also won’t require a label.

The new law invalidates other more robust labeling laws previously passed via state legislation. For example, Vermont recently passed the gold standard of GM labeling laws, and food companies were just releasing packaging with the GM label around the time the national legislation was quickly pushed through. The national law supersedes any state law, making the Vermont law null and void pending appeals.

“Consumers have already begun to see GM labeling disclosures on many familiar food packages as companies have prepared to comply with Vermont’s groundbreaking law,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, an organization that advocates for GM labeling. “In recent months, we have seen real-world examples of how clear, on-package labeling can work for both consumers and the industry. It is my hope that food corporations reject high-tech gimmicks, such as QR codes, and stick with the simple, nonjudgmental disclosures we have already seen popping up on shelves across the country.”

Worldwide, 64 other countries require food manufacturers to label genetically modified ingredients. Legislation has been defeated in the United States in several instances, including California and Oregon’s ballot measures. In those races, Monsanto and Big-Ag-friendly organizations, such as the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, have invested heavily in efforts to defeat those measures.

The new national law has come under so much scrutiny that some organizations are promising to take legal action challenging its constitutionality. To follow updates related to this issue, check out