Washington Insider-- Thursday

Really Strange Trade Debate

Consumer Groups Push Food Makers Not to Use QR Codes in GMO Labeling

Consumer groups opposed to provisions in the GMO labeling law and those who back the law are moving ahead with their efforts to convince regulators of their positions such as the use of QR codes (short for quick-response codes) as a way to convey information to consumers.

Groups including Just Label It, the Organic Consumers Association and others are pushing food companies to only put GMO information physically on the label and not to use the option allowed in the law of the QR codes. On-package information or a symbol that USDA would create are the two other options in the law to provide consumers GMO content information.

"We're reaching out directly to company leadership, we're advertising in places they're likely to see advertising," Environmental Working Group Vice President Scott Faber told Bloomberg BNA. The group is urging that companies not rely on those QR codes to comply with the new law.

"Not all consumers have smartphones and many consumers are still unfamiliar with how to use scanning technology to get more information about their foods," Faber said.

The issue of smartphones, cell service, and Internet access was also a point of discussion by some farm-state lawmakers as the GMO labeling plan was being developed in the Senate.

Just Label It coalition released an open letter Aug. 1 calling on food makers to join companies like Campbell's Soup Co. and Mars, Inc. in using on-package text to disclose GMO information.

Meanwhile, the Organic Consumers Association has started an online petition against the labeling law and its allowance of GMO disclosures through QR codes. The Wall Street Journal reported that effort has gained 500,000 signatures in less than a week.

But those who back the QR code use think opponents are wrong. "I think it's a red herring," Mark Baum, senior vice president of industry relations at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), said the opposition to QR codes. Only about one-fifth of consumers use QR codes to gain information on the products they buy in grocery stores, and Baum said they expect that will increase as shoppers want more information about the food items they purchase.

The USDA rulemaking process is to be finalized within two years based on provisions in the law, rulemaking which opponents of the law said gives USDA a great amount of discretion. USDA is expected to determine the maximum level of GMO ingredients in a product before it would be required to carry information for consumers.

Washington Insider: Really Strange Trade Debate

Trade deals are frequently a hard sell in the Congress, but this one may be the strangest in a long time. For example, the Associated Press is reporting this week that the president is brushing off opposition from Hillary Clinton, the candidate he supports, as well as Republican Donald Trump, over the proposed free-trade agreement with Asia. He vows to try to force the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress before either of them can take office.

Increasingly, Obama has been on his own as election-year resistance to the pact hardened around him, the AP says. Though Democratic leaders in Congress and both parties' presidential nominees say the deal shouldn't move forward, Obama disagreed with that concern. "Right now, I'm president, and I'm for it," Obama said. "And I think I've got the better argument."

And, that's not all. Even Republicans who typically support trade deals are downplaying chances for ratification this year. "That includes many Republicans who partnered with the Democratic president last year to pass legislation giving him the negotiating authority he said he needed to strike the deal," AP said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. called prospects for TPP approval this year "pretty slim" and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., charged that the president has "messed up the negotiations."

If you thought there was a lot of politics going on, you would be right. Still, the unusual part of this fight, or these fights, is that there are so many. For example, Republican Trump has described how he would move quickly to impose trade restrictions on China, among others—a move that sent shock waves through some Republican leaders in Congress and many of their constituents.

At the same time, in a clear reference to Clinton, Obama said he respects those who warn the deal undercuts U.S. workers and their wages, but he continues to assert that none of the deal's opponents has effectively argued that TPP would be worse for labor and the environment than no deal at all.

"I've got some very close friends, people I admire a lot, but who I just disagree with," Obama said. "And that's OK."

Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., both once supported the deal but reversed course as White House candidates. The White House is banking on Clinton reversing herself once again if elected and supporting the deal, perhaps by pointing to fixes she can claim have addressed. But after a close ally floated that possibility last week, her campaign chairman quashed it, insisting Clinton would remain opposed, "period, full stop."

"We have to be clear that we don't have the votes right now," said Tami Overby, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which strongly supports TPP. "The reason is there are still some issues that are being very actively worked on both by the administration, Congress and the stakeholders."

Yet Obama and the leaders of other TPP countries have made clear that re-opening negotiations to try to alter the terms would likely kill the whole deal, given how complicated it was to reach agreement in the first place. That means fixes would have to come via side deals or less formal arrangements that might not have the same force as a ratified act of Congress.

Speaking at a news conference with the prime minister of Singapore, one of 12 countries in TPP, Obama confirmed what most in Washington had long suspected: He's given up on getting the deal passed during the harried campaign season but is holding out hope for a vote in the lame-duck period between Election Day and the next president's inauguration.

"Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settled, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal and it won't just be a political symbol or a political football," Obama said.

Well, it is hard to see clearly how all the isolationist sentiment in this campaign will get sorted out, but there may be a tiny hint of something new in the mix. Opinion writer Thomas Friedman said in Wednesday's New York Times that Democratic economic proposals are running "smack into the anti-bank sentiment of the Democratic Party," but that the economy's anemic growth could change the debate.

Friedman added that "if there is one thing that is not going to revive growth right now, it is the anti-trade, regulatory heavy, socialist-lite agenda" the Democratic Party drifted into during the primaries. He calls for a center-left, center-right coalition that could "actually end the gridlock on fiscal policy in a smart way…with pro-growth economic policies."

Well, we'll see. The isolationist themes that led to Britain's Brexit vote are very strong in this country's election campaign and the candidates likely feel they have little room for change now. Still, President Obama apparently sees the need to work more actively against isolation, in spite of his own earlier opposition to trade deals like NAFTA. As he doubles down on support for TPP, that could stimulate a little more interest in pro-growth policies, a trend that could be watched carefully if it strengthens, Washington Insider believes.

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