Photo by Wilson Ring/Associated Press.

Food & Power Newsletter: Big Food Turns to Congress to Overturn State GMO Labeling Laws

Posted Chris Wager GMOs & Seeds, Leah Douglas, Miscellaneous, Newsletter

Photo by Wilson Ring/Associated Press.

After months of debate, Congress in early July established a national standard for the labeling of foods that contain ingredients that have been genetically modified (GMOs). President Obama is expected to sign the bill, officially called the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

The new federal standard was strongly opposed by a wide array of food and farm activists across the country. And indeed, the vote marked one of the more dramatic recent overturns of standards set by U.S. citizens acting through their state governments. The bill preempts several existing state laws, mostly notably Vermont’s, where GMO labeling had gone into effect on July 1st.

Opponents had dubbed the new standard the Deny Americans the Right to Know (or DARK) Act. An earlier version of the bill was defeated in March. But in this round of consideration, it passed in the House with a vote of 275-150, and in the Senate 63-30.

Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says Vermont residents see the bill as evidence the federal government is “controlled by large corporate powers,” and that a majority of legislators in Washington value “corporate interests above the public interest.” He says he expects the federal preemption of the will of Vermont citizens will stir “a good bit of anger.”

The national standard is less rigorous and transparent than Vermont’s legislation. Advocates say the action sets a worrying precedent for those working to enhance consumer transparency in the face of the growing power of consolidated food corporations.

Vermont’s path to creating a labeling standard began in 2012, with canvassing, phone calls, and petitions. Schilling emphasizes the degree to which building support for the bill was a grassroots effort. He says the coalition working to pass the labeling law knocked on 100,000 doors, in a state with a population of just over 625,000. The bill passed in 2014.

By the time Vermont’s labeling law went into effect earlier this month, several large food processors including Campbell Soup, General Mills, and ConAgra had already adjusted their national packaging to meet the new standards. Maine and Connecticut also passed GMO labeling laws, though those were made contingent on neighboring states passing similar legislation. The intent of that contingency was to ensure national manufacturers would absorb the cost of labeling, rather than leaving the responsibility of labeling to small grocers.

But the giant food corporations like Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and Nestle were displeased with state-by-state standards, arguing that meeting a variety of standards would be a costly burden. They said that a federal standard that preempted the state laws would provide a more efficient way to provide transparency to consumers.

But Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety, says the federal bill watered down the transparency mandates so central to the Vermont bill. “The only reason [the bill] was moved through so quickly was to stop the Vermont labeling law. Period.”

The new Act allows companies to label their products with text, a symbol, or a QR code. Advocates are concerned that the allowance of QR codes is a corporate-friendly loophole that places another transparency barrier between consumers and information about what they’re eating. “It’s discriminatory toward lots of different groups,” says Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America, given that scanning a QR code at the supermarket requires a smartphone and consistent Internet access. A 2013 study showed that only 20% of consumers had ever scanned a QR code, and just 2% scan one on a daily basis.

This is not the first time Federal lawmakers have preempted state laws in the food policy arena. In 2012, for instance, the Supreme Court struck down a California law designed to promote more humane slaughter of cattle, arguing that the Federal Meat Inspection Act preempted any state-level action.

Reformers say corporations are increasingly turning to Federal preemption to overturn state laws they oppose. Schilling says companies are using Congress to “protect them from states that are trying to pass consumer-friendly laws.” Experts, for instance, suggest this tactic could be used again to fight efforts by citizens to use state legislatures to impose taxes on soda.

“Most people like to think of the federal government as setting a floor for consumer protections, and letting the states go beyond that,” says Gremillion. But the new GMO bill does the opposite, he says. It prevents “consumers from accessing information that they would otherwise have access to.”

It also undermined a great victory by grassroots organizers in Vermont, setting the precedent that powerful corporations can use the federal government to overturn democratic decisions by citizens across America.

What We’re Reading

  • On July 7, Danone, the French food and beverage manufacturer that owns Dannon yogurt and Evian bottled water, announced a $10 billion deal to buy WhiteWave Foods Company, which owns Horizon Organic, Earthbound Farm, and Silk soy milk products. Food & Water Watch called for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to block the merger, citing that the deal would double Danone’s market power in the US.

  • As a response to last year’s American Egg Board scandal, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Commodity Checkoff Program Improvement Act of 2016 on July 14. According to a statement by Sen. Lee, the bill seeks to avoid “anticompetitive activity” by bringing “transparency and accountability” to commodity checkoff programs.

  • Monsanto rejected an increased acquisition offer, worth nearly $65 billion, from Bayer on July 19. But talks between the two companies will continue, maintaining the possibility of a Monsanto-Bayer merger that would mean even greater consolidation in the seed and chemical industries.

  • The Justice Department this week approved the $100 billion merger of Anheuser-Busch InBev with SABMiller, on the condition that the company sell its MillerCoors holdings. The decision places restrictions on ABI’s ability to buy beer distributors for the next ten years.

Chris Wager contributed research to this newsletter.

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