What You Need to Know About the GMO Labeling Debate

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

Congress is engaged in a food fight. This isn’t the kind of fight you’d see in a school cafeteria, though. It’s the kind of fight that could affect your health.

Federal lawmakers and others are clashing over two competing proposals that tackle the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. In one corner, GMO foes support mandatory labeling of GMO foods. In the opposite corner, GMO advocates seek a voluntary GMO labeling system. Furthermore, GMO opponents want the states to be able to regulate labeling, while GMO supporters want labeling to be handled at the federal level.

The GMO Food Labeling Debate: What You Need to Know

The dispute has come to a head as both sides gear up for a GMO labeling law to take effect next year in Vermont. The law will be the first in the country to require labeling of GMO foods. The Vermont law is serving as a backdrop to the federal battle over GMO labeling.

The federal Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, endorsed by an array of celebrities and pro-consumer groups, would mandate labeling of GMO foods, with a few exceptions. As it stands now, the federal government doesn’t require disclosure of GMO ingredients on food labels, although many foods now are certified as organic — and, therefore, non-GMO — or carry seals indicating they’ve been independently, but voluntarily, verified as being non-GMO. The federal measure also would prohibit companies from labeling any genetically engineered foods as “natural.”

A survey earlier this year for ABCNews.com found that 52 percent of American adults think GMO foods are unsafe, while separate surveys in 2013 for the New York Times and in 2014 for Consumer Reports revealed that more than 90 percent of American adults favor labeling of GMO foods.

“Consumers have a right to know if the food they feed their families was created in a lab,” says U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who’s a key Senate champion of the Right-to-Know Act. “Information is power, and this bill will empower folks to make their own educated choices about the food they buy.”

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her mother, actress Blythe Danner, recently joined Tester on Capitol Hill to push for passage of the Right-to-Know Act, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat.

In a video released recently by a group called Just Label It, celebrity mothers like Sara Gilbert, Jillian Michaels and Sarah Michelle Gellar called for mandatory GMO labeling. Just Label It, a nonprofit group, favors GMO labeling requirements like those being promoted by Boxer and DeFazio.

Just Label It opposes pending federal legislation that would prohibit state laws governing GMO labeling and would make it “virtually impossible” for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set up a mandatory national program for GMO labeling.

“The vast majority of Americans believe that we all have a right to know what’s in our food and how it was grown,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It. “Labeling GMOs is the next logical step in our country’s effort to provide transparent and accurate information to every consumer.”

Hirshberg is chairman and former president and CEO of yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm.

Critics complain that the Boxer-DeFazio legislation would set up a state-by-state patchwork of GMO labeling regulations, leading to consumer confusion and higher grocery bills. Those critics are pressing for passage of the federal Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which is backed by mainstream grocers and farmers, among others. Supporters say the measure would establish a voluntary federal program to certify GMO-free foods and would ban any labeling that suggests non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods. Also, the bill would reaffirm the FDA’s ability to require labeling of products that the agency determines pose a health or safety concern, supporters say.

According to its backers, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act would ensure “continued success” in providing safe, affordable, nutritious food.

In late July, the U.S. House passed the legislation on a 275-150 vote. The bill now awaits action in the U.S. Senate. Key House sponsors of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act are U.S. Reps. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, and G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat.

To find out how your U.S. representative voted on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, visit www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/114-2015/h462.

“Consumers have a right not only to not be deceived and misled. They also have a right not to be forced to pay more for food so they have more money for health care, education and other needs,” L. Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, testified recently in support of Pompeo and Butterfield’s proposal. “Compulsory labeling of GMOs would deprive them of these rights.”

Opponents, however, think the Pompeo-Butterfield bill would trample on their rights; in fact, they ridicule the measure as the Deny Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act. Tester says that if producers of GMOs were proud of their products, they’d already be labeling them. He argues that Pompeo and Butterfield’s legislation would ensure GMO manufacturers never would be required to label foods that are genetically modified.

“This bill undermines states who want to empower consumers with more information,” Tester says, “and it prevents American families from knowing where their food comes from.”

If you want to express your opposition to the DARK Act, visit www.justlabelit.org/action-center/take-action-congress.