House Passes Bill That Would Ban State Laws Mandating Labeling of GMO Foods

Posted Aug. 12, 2015

MP3 Interview with Patty Lovera, assistant director with the group Food & Water Watch, conducted by Scott Harris


The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on July 23 called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would ban all states from requiring the labeling of foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Supporters of the legislation assert that there's no credible evidence that foods produced with biotechnology pose any risk to human health and safety. But the bill's opponents say that GMO foods have not undergone rigorous and thorough unbiased testing, and that consumers should have the right to know what's in the food they're eating, regardless of perceived hazards. Consumer groups have nicknamed the bill, the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act, or DARK.

The bipartisan vote in the House supporting the bill, 275 to 150, reflected the influence of giant food corporations in Congress, who were looking for a way to overturn legislation passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine, which requires the labeling of GMO foods. Groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association claim state labeling laws will drive up food costs.

While there is not yet a strong base of support for a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, groups who oppose the anti-labeling legislation say the public is on their side in this fight, and they're calling on senators to oppose the measure. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Patty Lovera, assistant director with the group Food & Water Watch. Here, she talks about the impact of the bill on states that currently have their own food labeling laws and the interests behind this effort to deny consumers basic information about the food they eat.

PATTY LOVERA: So far, after a couple of solid years of really good activism at the state level, the grassroots level, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have all passed out of their legislature that would eventually require GMO foods to be labeled. Connecticut and Maine had kind of a waiting period where they needed other states to pass it as well. Vermont's law is set to go into effect about halfway through next year, in 2016. That is coming, that law has an effective date that's coming, it would be the first place in the country where mandatory labeling would be required.

So not surprisingly, the biotechnology industry – Monsanto and DuPont and the guys who make these GMO seeds and the grocery manufacturers – they don't like being regulated at all. They really don't like being regulated in terms of having to disclose things about food production that they don't want to. So when states started to respond to the grassroots and respond to their citizens by requiring labeling, these big industry players went to Washington and they went to Congress and so they did a lot of lobbying, they have thrown their weight around and they have convinced the House to pass a bill that would block those state laws, that would say this is a federal job, it's not for the states to do.

But the good news is, there is no bill yet in the Senate and so lots of groups, including Food and Water Watch are focused on making sure we don't see this bad legislation move through the Senate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now Patty, as I understand it, the vote for this bill in the U.S. House of Representatives was 275 to 150. It means a lot of Democrats and Republicans all voted for this bill. What kind of money is flowing to these candidates from the big agriculture food companies as well as companies like Monsanto that specialize in genetic engineering?

PATTY LOVERA: Yeah, we're going to see some of that data when we report from this time period that just happened with this vote. But what we do know is that lots and lots of lobbying was going on. You know, all of us in D.C. that were down there doing our meetings, we were seeing folks from the other side doing their meetings, too. We know that the same entities – you know the grocery manufacturers, the biotechnology companies like Monsanto – they have spent tens of millions of dollars in states where this has been has been either in the legislature or on the ballot. So we tallied some of it up last year, and we think that they've spent getting close to a $100 million ... well over $90 million in the last couple of years, fighting state-level initiatives because they really, really don't want these bills to go through to change how they have to label their foods. And then they shifted their attention to D.C.

So we're going to have to do that analysis when we get through some of the reporting; that'll happen. It's a little too early to know. But we know that they've put a lot of effort into it and we know the PR, you know, public relations war that they waged on this. There were just some outrageous claims made about the impact that a basic label on a package of food would have on the price of foods. That didn't make any sense, but stop these companies from saying over and over again that requiring this labeling would somehow increase all of our grocery bills. It just doesn't make any sense.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In the European Union, for instance, which is a continent with an economy and standard of living similar to here in the United States. What is their policy on genetically modified foods? Is there a labeling or even their sale within the European Union?

PATTY LOVERA: So a lot of folks think that GMOs are entirely banned in the European Union, and they're actually not. And they're re-evaluating their process right now. They're having a very hot debate there right about how they're going to approve these crops; what's allowed to be cultivated there; what's allowed to be eaten there, but they do have labeling. And so they've had labeling for many, many years. And when things are sold there that contain it, they have to be labeled, as do lots of countries around the world, including really large economies that use GMOs, like Brazil. They have figured out how to do this because it's pretty basic information to carry through the supply chain. You know that the seed is genetically engineered, and we're just asking that information carry through the supply chain through to the end product.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What are the prospects that the U.S. Senate will take up a similar bill to the one passed in the U.S. House of Representatives to prohibit the labeling of GMO foods and if it were passed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate, is there any indication that President Obama would either sign or veto such legislation?

PATTY LOVERA: Yeah, these are the political questions we are going to be talking about in August. So there is not yet a bill in the Senate. So, that's the first step. Someone has to introduce it, there's discussions supposedly happening, but they haven't figured it out yet. Historically, when he was campaigning for president, the president talked about "We should label GMOs" and so Food and Water Watch, and lots of other folks who work on this issue are going to try to hold him to that if we reach that point, if the Senate were to pass a bill and it's up to him to veto it, we're going to be calling him to live up to that campaign promise. But right now, what we're asking people to do is, depends how much longer they stay. But the Senate's only going to be in D.C. for another week or so, and then they're going to be home, for August. And we need folks to be talking to them during that August recess, saying don't do this. Don't limit, especially you're in a place like Connecticut where you have a state law that's eventually going to go into effect, you need to tell your members from the Senate from Connecticut, don't touch our state laws, let us figure it out here.

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