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Congress Passes A Law! (That’s Not Always a Good Thing.)

A news update during Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR last Saturday told me that President Obama had signed a GMO Labeling bill into law. “Wait wait,” I said to the radio. “There wasn’t any GMO Labeling Bill in Congressss … Oh. Right.” It had slipped my mind that an amendment to SR. 764, what some consumer rights groups have nicknamed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, had been reworked and rebranded as a GMO Labelling Bill. It flew through our Legislative branch, with about ¾ of the House and 2/3 of the Senate (including both Minnesotans) in favor.

Whatever your opinions on Genetically Modified Organisms, you might want to know a thing or two about this new law. In an effort to avoid any appearance of or actual prejudice or preference (how dare you), I offer you a handful of noteworthy things straight from the law’s mouth.

Thing 1: Section 293 e)

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.

That means this law overrides any state or local laws on GM labeling, which is particularly upsetting to Bernie and his fellow Vermonters, who have disclosure standards currently in effect. And they’re not the only ones who have passed laws that require clear labeling. Some major companies have already changed their packaging to comply with those laws. Tough: back to the drawing board. Let’s keep that marketing department busy! (Could it be that the graphic design lobby, and not the agribusiness lobby, is the powerful force behind all of this? Worth considering….)

Thing 2: (293. b) 2 D) “The form of a food disclosure under this section [may] be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link… or telephone number.” So no GMOs inside! sticker is likely to show up on your favorite cereal box. Instead, there will likely be a scannable link. If manufacturers comply at all. Up to them, since nothing in this bill is really enforceable. *ahem* (293 g) 3 A) “The Secretary may conduct an examination, audit, or similar activity” BUT (293 g) 4) “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.” (Italics mine.) And there are no other punitive measures written into the law.

Not that the labeling will necessarily mean much, even if everyone does comply. The secretary of agriculture shall “determine the amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present in food, as appropriate, in order for the food to be a bioengineered food.” (293 a) 2 B) Could it be .1%? 90%? The line should probably be drawn somewhere. Large-scale manufacturers can hardly guarantee there is no GM product in a processed food, given that so much of the stuff typically crammed into those foods (corn, soy) is genetically modified. Any guesses as to what factors will determine the GM threshold? Numerology?

Thing 3? 5? (Sec 293 (b) 2 a): This is a good one. The law “shall […] prohibit a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance.” That is, a factory-farmed chicken, subsisting on GM-corn and sadness, would not have any label distinguishing it from, for example, paddock-raised, weed-eating, non-GM fed poultry. You are what you eat, but apparently a farm animal is not.

In conclusion, my totally unbiased analysis of this law is that its primary achievements are in restricting states’ rights to pass their own laws about disclosing the origins of food ingredients, and in de facto crushing the possibility of clear, readable labeling of GM content. Everything else is pretty much a suggestion. If you’re interested in knowing what’s in your food, be sure to have your phone charged when you hit the grocery store. Eventually, you just might be able to scan something on the products whose manufacturers choose to comply that may give you some idea of whether there is some yet-to-be-determined amount of genetically modified content in the food you put into your mouth. Unless it’s a chicken.

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