By Gary Hirshberg, Chief Organic Optimist and Chairman of Just Label It and Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group Vice President of Government Affairs
In 2011, Stonyfield helped to launch Just Label It (JLI), the national campaign for full GMO transparency. I (Gary) have been Chairman of Just Label It from the start and millions of consumers and hundreds of companies have joined us in pressing for a simple national label that clearly informs consumers whether our foods contain GMO’s. Sixty-Four nations around the world provide consumers with this vital information, but the US remains stubbornly unwilling to provide citizens with the right to know.
Nearly two years ago, Congress passed a bill that pre-empted the rights of individual states to require mandatory GMO labeling in favor of a unified national standard. Unfortunately neither JLI nor Stonyfield could support the law because we felt it had many deficiencies that could be manipulated to keep consumers in the dark. Nevertheless the law passed and was signed by President Obama and it required the USDA to finalize rules to take effect two years later, this coming July, 2018.
Several weeks ago, the USDA finally published the long-awaited draft rule. Unfortunately, all of our concerns about the law have been realized…the proposed rule falls far short of both the letter and the spirit of the labeling law. Now unfortunately the only hope is for all of us as citizens to demand that the USDA and Congress revise and fix the law so that US citizens can have the same rights as those who live in really progressive countries like Russia and China.
JLI and Stonyfield have long believed that Americans should have the right to know what’s in our food and how it’s grown, just like consumers in the other 64 other nations. When Congress passed the first-ever national GMO food disclosure law in 2016, they promised consumers a disclosure system that would cover more ingredients and be simple to use.
But the draft rule proposed by the USDA could exclude almost three-fourths of products with genetically engineered ingredients. What’s more, the rule proposes requiring confusing new terminology and symbols when companies make on-package disclosures. The proposed rule sets up few limits when companies choose to make digital disclosures. It also doesn’t provide practical solutions for consumers who need to scan a digital disclosure but don’t own smartphones or those who have lousy cell service.
Here are 6 ways the draft rule might leave consumers in the dark:
- All GMO Foods Disclosed? The draft rule does not say whether or not companies will have to disclose genetically engineered sugars and oils, or ingredients that have been created through new technologies such as gene-editing. Exempting foods made with GMO sugars and oils could exclude 70 percent of products with genetically engineered ingredients – even though Congress clearly intended for the new law to cover more products than Vermont’s first-in-the-nation state labeling law.
- Huge Loopholes? The draft rule might also exempt foods from the disclosure requirements of the new law when 5 percent or less of the ingredients, by weight, are genetically engineered. Again, exempting thousands of products through this loophole would undermine Congress’ clear intent to increase, not reduce, disclosure.
- Confusing Language? If companies choose to make an on-package GMO disclosure, the draft rule would require companies to use the words “bioengineered” or “bioengineered food ingredient,” not the widely known phrases “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered.” Using confusing new words or symbols will not help build consumer trust, but will sow more confusion and concern. Responsible companies that want to disclose genetically engineered ingredients in terms that consumers understand would be barred from doing so.
- No Rules for Digital Disclosures? The draft rule provides few rules for companies that choose to disclose GMOs digitally through a QR code, creating the possibility that smartphones won’t read the digital codes consistently. It’s bad enough that many consumers will be forced to use their smartphones to have the same rights as consumers in 64 other nations. The USDA should make sure that QR codes work every time and in every store.
- No Smartphone? A recent study by Deloitte found that nearly 1 in 4 Americans don’t own a smartphone, but the new rule does not provide comparable options for poor or elderly Americans, such as making scanners available in grocery store aisles.
- No Cell Service? Compounding the fact that many Americans still don’t have smartphones is the fact that more than 20 million people have bad cell service. That means that it will take a long time for the GMO information to load – if it loads at all – and the text message option provided by the draft rule will be of little use if consumers don’t have cell service to send or receive texts.
Now’s the time to tell the USDA to require full and transparent GMO disclosures. The rule must reject confusing words and symbols, ensure that QR codes are easy to scan, and guarantee real-world solutions for consumers without smartphones or those with poor cell service.
Margaret Mead told us to “never doubt the power of a small group of citizens to change the world…indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Now is the moment to follow her adage. We have until July 3rd to submit comments to the USDA telling them to address the deficiencies above. Please take a moment today to send in an email or letter to the USDA to let them know they must do better to protect our rights to know.