The Least Possible Label

A few days ago, Congress passed a landmark bill that will require food companies to label the presence of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in their products.

On the face of it, the bill represents an advance in the consumer’s right to know. If you are entitled to know whether there’s sugar, fat, chemical additives or preservatives in the item you’re ingesting, then it makes sense that GM ingredients should not be exempt from disclosure either. Even if the scientific consensus at this stage is that GM foods are safe, GM skeptics argue that health and environmental problems as yet undetected could still emerge in the future.

However, reactions to passage of the bill were mixed. That is, food companies, who have fought off mandatory GM labeling for years were all for it; whereas labeling advocates were sharply critical, some going so far as to call it a betrayal of the consumer.

The bill suffers by comparison to a tougher law enacted in Vermont that took effect on July 1. The Vermont law requires a clear statement of GM ingredients to be printed on the label and sets a fine of up to $1,000 a day for those who fail to comply.

The Congressional formula, on the other hand, gives companies much more leeway. They will be granted three options: straightforward language printed on the label, digital codes, or a symbol to be designed later. They would be given at least two years to revise their labels.

As Vermont Rep. Peter Welch put it in plain and simple challenge on the floor of the House: “If there is an acknowledgement about the right of a consumer to have access to information, why not give them the information in plain and simple English?”

The option for QR codes displayed on labels was denounced as a sophisticated digital dodge. Critics say that few customers will click on the codes. A study this year by the Food Marketing Institute industry group found that only 20 percent of shoppers scan a digital code on grocery items to learn more about their nutritional content. According to the Pew Research Center, only 68 percent of Americans own smartphones, which means that the millions of people who choose — for a number of very valid reasons — not to use such a device, would have no access to the digital disclosure.

The inclusion of QR codes in the law is a concession to the food industry, which has argued that a printed statement would give the false impression that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are hazardous to your health.

The code printed on the label would itself show no reference to genetic modification. Only by clicking on it would the new labeling be visible.

“It is the right solution to increase disclosure of information that consumers are seeking without stigmatizing a safe technology that feeds a hungry and growing world,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

A symbol would also be less than “plain and simple.” Even once a design gets approval, it would presumably take some time before the public gets acquainted with the new symbol.

And then it will have to compete for space on the label with a growing panoply of other symbols and information. The more the symbols crowd on, the less shoppers will bother to look at them.

Furthermore, the bill’s opponents charge that loopholes in the text could allow up to 90 percent of GMOs to evade the labeling requirement altogether.

President Obama has said he will sign the bill as it stands. But a letter signed by 268 organizations was sent to the president on July 15, and a petition with another quarter million signatures is on its way, urging the President to veto.

The food companies have conceded the point that people have a right to know whether the genetics of their food have been rearranged. Enlightenment dawned after the Vermont law went into effect and other states threatened to follow suit. They saw the writing on the wall (not digital), and decided to push for the least possible labeling law that Congress would vote for.

The question affects all of us. According to the food industry’s own figures, 75 to 80 percent of foods marketed in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients — most of those corn and soy-based.

The industry has not been at all reticent about employing the technology of genetic modification, which has resulted in hardier, pest-resistant crops, as well as more robust profit margins. It should not be overmodest about publicizing its use in a clear and straightforward manner.

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that 57 percent of Americans say that GMOs are unsafe, and two thirds say they want new labeling. While it is debatable whether GMO’s are as hazardous as its critics describe it, the American people should have the right to make educated decisions.

It’s time to give the people the labeling they want — without putting it through genetic modification.