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By Casey Wooten
Aug. 2 — For consumer groups, the newly enacted legislation creating a labeling system for foods made with genetically modified ingredients was bittersweet, and many are now refocusing their effort to pressure food makers to go beyond the letter of the new law.
Organizations like Just Label It and the Organic Consumers Association got the mandatory labeling provision they sought, but they remain critical of what they call loopholes in the bill (S. 764) that they say puts a technological barrier between consumers and GMO information.
Signed into law by the president July 29, the bill gives companies the option to disclose GMO ingredients using on-package text, a USDA created symbol or a QR code scanned by a smartphone.
That last option is what has consumer groups up in arms and vowing to continue a campaign to push food makers to avoid using QR codes in favor of on-package text, saying that it is the only way to reliably inform customers about GMO ingredients. The efforts mark a new phase in the GMO labeling debate as companies look to the Agriculture Department for rules implementing the law (See previous story, 08/01/16).
“We're reaching out directly to company leadership, we're advertising in places they're likely to see advertising,” Scott Faber, vice president at the Environmental Working Group, told Bloomberg BNA.
Though more consumers are using smartphones to examine the ingredients and nutrition value of foods, companies shouldn't rely on them to comply with a government mandate, Faber said.
“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.
Just Label It has run ads in Washington-centric publications calling on food makers to drop plans to use QR codes to disclose GMO information.
The Just Label It coalition—of which the Environmental Working Group is a member—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.
“It is my hope that food corporations reject high-tech gimmicks, like QR codes, and stick with the simple, non-judgmental disclosures we have already seen popping up on shelves across the country,” Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, said in a statement.
The Organic Consumers Association has launched an online petition calling on consumers to boycott brands that use QR codes—what they describe as the “Mark of Monsanto”—to comply with the new labeling law.
Most food makers back QR codes, saying that it's a viable way to get lots of information to consumers. The new GMO labeling law requires the USDA to study the effectiveness of QR codes.
Though the USDA hasn't said when a draft rule would be ready, language in the bill requires that they finalize regulations within two years of enactment, and consumer groups are ramping up efforts to influence the rulemaking process (See previous story, 07/21/16).
“There are some provisions in that bill that give this agency an enormous amount of discretion,” Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, told Bloomberg BNA.
For example, the USDA will likely determine the maximum percentage of GMO ingredients a product may contain without requiring a label. The USDA also will determine which types of genetic modification techniques fall under the labeling bill, Lovera said.
Faber said that his organization will be pressing the USDA to include as many products as possible under the law.
“We'll be making sure that the administration follows the clear intent of Congress to label all GMOs regardless of what technology was used,” Faber said.
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Text of Just Label It's letter is available at http://www.concealorreveal.org/justlabelit/industryletter/industryletter2.php.
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