An Urban's Rural View

A GMO-Labeling Bill By Any Other Name

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Who has the best label for the GMO-labeling bill the House just passed and sent to the Senate? The 275 Congressmen who voted aye call it the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. To the 150 nays, it's the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act.

Judging by the acronyms these competing titles yield, the point goes to the nays. The clever DARK trumps the clunky SAFL. But DARK flunks the accuracy test while SAFL merely gilds the lily. Overall, then, advantage ayes.

Sorry, nays. This bill does not deny Americans the right to know. It denies states the right to mislead.

That's what "Contains Genetically Engineered Ingredients" on the front of the package would do: mislead. It would say, in effect, "The government thinks there's something in this product to worry about." In reality the pertinent government agencies -- FDA, EPA, USDA -- think no such thing.

The "right to know" sounds like motherhood. Who could oppose it? The problem is it ducks the key question: the right to know what? If states are allowed to mandate GMO warnings, Americans won't know which genetically engineered traits a product contained. They won't know whether GMOs were a major or minor part of the product. They won't know anything helpful about the safety of the product.

In fact, the only way to justify calling this bill DARK is to modify the acronym to DARKPL: Denying Americans the Right to Know Pitifully Little.

On the other hand, to call it the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is, well, puffery. The bill mandates no changes in food labels. It prevents the states from mandating changes. It ensures that labels will say the same thing in Portland, Maine as they do in Portland, Oregon. Avoiding 50 labeling regimes is worth congressional time and trouble, but it won't render food or food labels any more or less "safe."

Assuming the Senate passes SAFL -- which is far from certain -- and to the extent it eases voluntary certification of "non-GMO" products, it will end up changing some food labels. That, too, may be worth doing, but, again, it won't affect safety. And the bill does nothing for those who genuinely want information, as opposed to warnings, about genetically engineered ingredients.

It would be easy to give them that. Processors could list, on the back of the package along with the fat, sugar and carb details, which ingredients are GE and how much of the product they make up. Or, as ag secretary Tom Vilsack has pointed out (…), there could be an app for that. The consumer would scan a bar code on the product with her cellphone and up would pop the information.

A bill pushing for that kind of information could be labeled the Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 without puffing or flunking the accuracy test. The best label for the bill the House passed is the Prevent Labeling Errors and Abuse by the States Eternally act. Acronym: PLEASE.



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Dale Paisley
8/4/2015 | 11:53 AM CDT
One of the big problems I see is that even if things are labeled as containing GMO's, there are so many different types that even that is meaningless. Is there a difference between something that is glyphosate tolerant and something that kills intuders like root worm? To me, there is a difference. One is resistant to poisons while the other is poisonous to insects. I still struggle with how something can kill insects that bore into it without causing problems when the fodder or grain is fed to livestock or humans. Is a triple stack corn seed truly as safe as a NON-GMO seed? I want to believe it is but am not yet convinced.