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Update: US Government Keeps Us in the DARK about GMOs

Jill Spencer has been an online writer for ten years. Her articles often focus on gardening.

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The "Deny Americans the Right to Know Act" or DARK Act

On July 23, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, an Orwellian title for a law more accurately renamed by opponents as the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act or the DARK Act.

Then, the Senate passed a new DARK Act and President Obama signed it into law.

Unfortunately, in some ways S.764, called the Non-Labeling Bill by critics, is even darker than the first. Why? Because it appears to be ensuring transparency in food labeling while actually allowing manufacturers to disclose as little as they like, including nothing at all, about the actual GMO content of their products. It also allows manufacturers to meet labeling requirements through QR codes inaccessible to those without smartphones or other devices that can read them.

S.764, the Non-Labeling Law

S.764 blocks state-mandated labeling laws, such as the law recently passed by Vermont. It also gives manufacturers various methods for labeling products that contain GMOs. They can add...

  • labels with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) GMO symbol,
  • a statement in plain language that GMOs are present in the food,
  • a scanner/smartphone readable label that links to ingredient information, or
  • a web address or telephone number that directs consumers to additional product information.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Like it's a win for those of us who believe we have a right to know what's in our food. But wait . . .

The bill does not include penalties for companies that fail to comply, making S.764 not that much different from the voluntary compliance bill Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) was pushing not long ago.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act: A Closer Look

S.764 also defines GMOs narrowly, "requiring" labels only for foods with ingredients "modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques" (qtd. in Lugo). That means foods that contain oils and sweeteners made from genetically modifed crops would be exempt. But really, all genetically-modified food is exempt since no penalty is attached for non-compliance. In other words, S.764 is a fake measure no doubt meant to pacify consumers and make them think they're getting truth in labeling when in fact they are getting no such thing.

Furthermore, products labeled through QR codes only are inherently discriminatory, as they require smartphones or other readers the poor and elderly are unlikely to have.

According to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, "100,000,000 Americans, most of them poor, people of color and elderly either do not own a smart phone or an iPhone to scan the QR code or live in an area of poor internet connectivity."

"There are serious questions of discrimination presented here and unresolved matters of equal protection of the law," Jackson wrote in a letter to President Obama, urging him to "veto this bill and to send it back to Congress with instructions to correct this fatal flaw” (qtd. in "Rev. Jesse Jackson Calls on President Obama to Reject Discriminatory Labeling Bill").

Unfortunately, although the President commissioned a study regarding QR code accessibility, he did not reject the Act, but signed it into law on Friday, July 29, 2016.

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Poor Monsanto and ConAgra

Proponents of the law believe US consumers are just too ignorant and prejudiced against GMOs to be allowed to know what's actually in the foods they buy.

(I guess if they were wearing labels, two of their main ingredients would be elitism and paternalism.)

But really, aren't they just covering the asses of corporations like Monsanto and ConAgra? After all, if agribusiness had to worry about what consumers want, they might have to actually produce it— and make damn sure it's safe every time.

I want to know what I am eating. And, of course, I do not trust corporations to act in my best interest. Like many members of Congress, they have their own agendas, and my welfare is not one of them.

To me, accurate, real labeling is just another way to attempt to make them a little more careful, a little more accountable for the decisions that they make in their pursuit of profit.

The US Government vs. the World

According to the Center for Food Safety, 64 countries require food labeling that includes information regarding a product's GMO content. For heaven's sake, even China labels GMOs.

Countries with hideous records on human rights, such as China and Saudi Arabia, require GMO labeling. But now, thanks to Congress and President Obama, the citizens of the United States are going to be left in the dark regarding the exact contents of their food in regard to GMOs.

Moreover, US citizens are going to think that they do know the GMO content of their food because while some companies will comply, others will ignore the penalty-free federal "requirements." And foods that actually do contain genetically modified organisms won't be labelled as such due to the law's narrow definition of GMO foods.

Is real GMO labeling too hot for Americans to handle?

Is real GMO labeling too hot for Americans to handle?

President Obama's Response to Opponents of the Law

If you care about accurate food labeling and signed one or more petitions urging the President to veto the DARK Act, you'll be interested to know that, for the most part, he ignored you, signing it into law with only one proviso: "Before the new disclosure program [the DARK Act] is put in place, the law calls for a study to be conducted to assess whether challenges exist related to consumers' access to electronic disclosures." (See the email below.)

Yes, access to QR codes on packaging was a concern, but not the only one. Not even the primary one. The fact that the DARK Act is really a non-labeling law intended to hoodwink consumers regarding the content of their food is its primary flaw, and a study about consumer access to QR codes won't fix that.

Here's the full email response from the We the People Team at whitehouse.gov concerning the President's decision to sign the DARK Act into law:

"An update on labeling:

In recent years, Americans have expressed increased interest in understanding how their food is produced -- including whether it was produced using bioengineering (sometimes referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs).

This Administration is well aware of that interest, and we take it seriously.

As mentioned in this petition, earlier in July, both the Senate and the House passed a bill to require food manufacturers to disclose whether food includes ingredients that have been bioengineered. The legislation provides flexibility for companies to choose from the following options:

  • A text statement or symbol directly on the food packaging itself indicating bioengineered ingredients
  • A digital QR (Quick Response) code that customers can scan with their smartphone if they want to learn about bioengineered ingredients
  • Smaller companies could also offer a phone number or URL on the package that consumers can access for more info

Before the new disclosure program is put in place, the law calls for a study to be conducted to assess whether challenges exist related to consumers' access to electronic disclosures. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determines that consumers would not have sufficient access to the information, the bill directs USDA to provide for alternative methods of disclosure. USDA will do everything possible to ensure that the program provides information in an equitable way.

Today, the President signed this legislation. While there is broad consensus that foods produced using bioengineering are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers' interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes bioengineered ingredients. You can learn more about this legislation here or email questions to GMOlabeling@ams.usda.gov.

Through the USDA's National Organic Program, consumers can already identify food that was produced without any genetically engineered ingredients. Whenever you see the USDA Organic seal (seen here), it means that the food was grown without the use of prohibited pesticides, genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers, or irradiation.

Your voice and input will be important throughout the implementation process of this legislation and in helping design the best disclosure program possible.

USDA has established a working group to develop a timeline for rulemaking and to ensure an open and transparent process for effectively establishing this new program. We are committed to providing multiple opportunities for engagement, such as listening sessions and the opportunity for the public to provide written comments. This process will ensure you have the opportunity to provide the Executive Branch with input on the attributes of the bioengineered food disclosure program as it is developed.

We look forward to your continuous engagement and will keep you posted here as these opportunities arise."

The Message?

I guess the message is first, "here's a panacea—a study!" and then, "if you really don't want to eat GMOs, buy food labelled organic." We, US consumers, deserve a better response than this from our elected officials. We deserve to know what is in our food. Unfortunately, that knowledge, that power, is being kept from us in the interests of agribusinesses. If our government speaks for them, who speaks for us?

"I am disappointed the President signed the DARK Act into law. It is an unfair and disingenuous law."

— Angry US Consumer

Is Knowledge Power?

Call the President! (Vent a Little)

It's easy to tell the Obama you're upset that he signed the DARK Act into law. Just call 202-456-1111 and stay on the line. An operator will take your message, so long as it's brief. Just say, "I'm disappointed President Obama failed to protect American consumers from the DARK Act, which is a sham and a disgrace." Or something to that effect.

I called this afternoon, and it took about five minutes, from dialing the number to ending the call. Please join me in expressing disdain, anger and outrage at this ridiculous non-labeling GMO law that shields agribusiness and blinds consumers from the truth about what's in their food.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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