PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday July 15th, 2016, 2:34pm

Consumer Groups Sound Off Over 'Sham' GMO Labeling Bill

Progress Illinois rounds up reaction to the controversial federal GMO labeling law approved in Congress Thursday.

Consumer groups are up in arms over GMO labeling legislation that cleared Congress Thursday and awaits action from President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign the bill.

Under the legislation, companies would have three options for labeling products with genetically engineered, or GMO, ingredients -- either by text, a symbol or QR code readable by smartphones.

The federal measure, spearheaded by U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), would nullify a stronger GMO labeling law that went into effect this month in Vermont.

Various details of the Roberts-Stabenow GMO bill would need to be hashed out by the U.S. Agriculture Department, including whether refined sugars, soybean oils and similar products would be exempt from GMO labeling requirements.

Critics are blasting the GMO labeling legislation as a "sham" and "sell out to the Big Food industry," with the Center for Food Safety calling it a "a non-labeling law masquerading as a labeling law." On the other hand, proponents including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Sugarbeet Growers Association say the measure represents a win for consumers and businesses alike.

"The legislation ensures that consumers get more information about genetically engineered ingredients, prevents a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling mandates, and provides the same labeling rules to shoppers regardless of where they live or shop," said Grocery Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pamela Bailey. "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."

But groups like Just Label It, a campaign of the Organic Voices Action Fund, aren't buying it.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, said the GMO labeling bill "falls short of what consumers rightly expect - a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package."

"It also contains ambiguities that could needlessly narrow the scope of biotechnologies covered and is vague on what GMO content levels require labeling and enforcement penalties for non-compliance," he said. "These weaknesses mean that the fight for national mandatory GMO transparency now shifts to USDA and to the marketplace, where companies should think twice before they remove GMO labels from their packages."

Another group opposing the legislation is the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).

In passing the Roberts-Stabenow bill, Congress has "trampled on consumer and states' rights, choosing instead [to] serve the interests of Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association," said OCA's international director Ronnie Cummins.

"This bill was written, bought and paid for by corporations who clearly have something to hide," Cummins stressed. "Replacing clear, on-package labels with a system that is convoluted, inconvenient and discriminates against the elderly, the poor and anyone without a smartphone or internet access is inexcusable, especially when consumers in 64 other countries have the right to that same information."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Push Coalition has also jumped into the fray, urging Obama to veto the Roberts-Stabenow bill. Like OCA and other consumer groups, the civil rights leader takes particular issue with allowing companies to use QR codes in place of text on products to disclose GMO ingredients.

"The GMO labeling law's principal thrust is to rely on QR codes which shoppers will scan to gain product information relative to GMOs. However, 100,000,000 Americans, most of them poor, people of color and elderly either do not own a smart phone or an iPhone to scan the QR code or live in an area of poor internet connectivity," Jackson wrote in a letter to the president Thursday. "There are serious questions of discrimination presented here and unresolved matters of equal protection of the law. I am asking you to veto this bill and to send it back to Congress with instructions to correct this fatal flaw."

The proposal has also spurred divisions within the Organic Trade Association (OTA) over the group's support for the bill. OTA backs the legislation because it requires GMO ingredient disclosure as well as provisions that "safeguard USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status."

OTA's support for the legislation was too much for the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), which ended its OTA membership this week. OSGATA officials said "recent revelations" indicated that "OTA has created numerous close partnerships with Monsanto including intensive lobbying efforts by the notorious biotech-linked lobbyist Podesta Group on behalf of the" Roberts-Stabenow bill.

"It's clear that Organic Trade Association has come under the control of a small group of lobbyists controlled by giant-food corporations that also own organic brands," said OSGATA President Jim Gerritsen, an organic seed farmer in Maine. "In an effort to protect their own bottom lines and those of their parent companies, the reckless actions of these large parent-owned organic companies threaten the survival of organic farmers and the organic community we have all worked so hard for decades to build.

"The Organic Trade Association can no longer be trusted and it's clear that organic farmers can no longer condone this dubious trade association's troubling behavior," Gerritsen continued. "Effective immediately, the farmer-run organic seed trade group OSGATA resigns from OTA and we call on other honest organic organizations and companies to do the same."

Stay tuned.

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