Pitched Battle for GMO Labeling Continues

grocery aisle
  • The USDA withdrew its GMO disclosure rule due to concerns that farmers’ confidential business information would be compromised under FOIA.

  • Only 2 states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed a GMO food labeling law. 32 states have active pending GMO labeling legislation.

UPDATE: Withdrawal of GMO Disclosure Rule

Update (07/24/2014): On July 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) withdrew its GMO disclosure rule, previously proposed in February 2013. The rule would have allowed the USDA to share information with state regulators about the flow of genetically engineered organisms into and out of a state. The USDA obtains information about farmers’ GMO use through registrations and permit applications

The proposed rule was withdrawn due to concerns that the farmers’ confidential business information would be compromised under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Since states are considered members of the public under FOIA, releasing such information to state officials would allow any member of the public to request the information, as well.

Consumers have a right to know about GMO use in their area and about its use in their food. A year after Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO food labeling law, only Maine has passed similar legislation. 32 states have active pending GMO labeling legislation.

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In 2013, the ongoing battle between those wanting to know more about the food they're eating and large agribusiness interests has escalated. Twenty-five state legislatures have introduced bills either requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or specifically prohibiting such labels. In June, Connecticut became the first state to actually pass a GMO labeling law. Large agribusinesses have fought hard against efforts to require GMO labeling.


The use of genetically engineered crops has increased tremendously over the last decade, but without a corresponding increase in government oversight or regulations. These GMO crops are created when a plant or organism receives genetic material from a different source – sometimes a different species – in a way that would not occur naturally. The most common GMOs in the United States are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Since many processed foods use ingredients derived from such crops (e.g., high fructose corn syrup or soy protein), it is estimated that more than half the foods in grocery stores contain GMOs.

With the prevalence of GMOs in the marketplace, people have become increasingly concerned about their effects on human health.


With the prevalence of GMOs in the marketplace, people have become increasingly concerned about their effects on human health. Scientific studies show that genetically engineered crops have the potential to cause a variety of adverse health and environmental impacts, including the development of new allergens and toxins, the spread of harmful traits to weeds and non-genetically engineered crops, and harm to animals that consume them.

For example, in 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine highlighted several animal studies showing serious health risks associated with GMO food, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. In addition, tests have shown that genetically engineered crops can spread allergies. The study found that an allergen from a type of Brazilian nut had been transferred to soybeans. Therefore, those with nut allergies could experience an allergic reaction to foods that use the genetically engineered soybeans.

Grassroots action for labeling bills began building after November 2012, when a ballot initiative in California was defeated. The initiative, Proposition 37, would have required GMO labeling for products sold in the state. Labeling activists blamed a $45 million campaign against labeling by agriculture and food industry groups, such as Monsanto, for the failure of the referendum. This defeat led food safety activists across the country to start organizing in their own states through social media.

Connecticut Makes Legislative History on GMOs

Although there have been several bills introduced requiring GMO labels in state legislatures in the past few years, on June 25, Connecticut became the first state to establish such a law. The bipartisan HB 6527 requires food manufacturers to include information on labels indicating whether their products include GMOs. The bill passed both chambers by a landslide.

But, despite it being landmark legislation, the new law includes many caveats that water down right-to-know provisions. These loopholes were introduced after an intense lobbying campaign aimed at state lawmakers by Monsanto, a major producer of GMOs, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association.

The first caveat is a "trigger clause" that prevents Connecticut's labeling requirements from taking effect until four other states also adopt labeling legislation. In addition, the clause stipulates that at least one of these states must border Connecticut. Further, the combined population of these states must be at least 20 million in order for the law to go into effect. This means that unless several other states in the Northeast pass GMO labeling legislation, the Connecticut law will be moot.

Second, key food items are exempted from labeling, including food served in restaurants, alcoholic beverages, farm products sold at farmer's markets, and animals that have been fed GMO feedstock. Even if the rest of the Northeast passed GMO labeling legislation, some of the most commonly consumed food items would continue to be unlabeled.

Although activists opposed these caveats, especially the trigger clause amendment, they still consider the legislation a landmark victory. "We're hoping that the clause will end up being a catalyst to encourage other states to join us," stated Tara Cook-Littman of GMO Free CT.

Since Connecticut passed its legislation, Maine followed suit and passed similar legislation ten days later. Like Connecticut's GMO labeling law, Maine's legislation will not go into effect unless other states follow suit and pass similar measures, including New Hampshire, the only state to share a border with Maine. Other Northeastern states that are already considering GMO labeling legislation include New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey.

But in New York, a proposal to require GMO labeling was killed in committee after committee members, including several co-sponsors of the bill, were heavily lobbied. The Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group whose members include Dow AgroScience, DuPont and Monsanto, coordinated the lobbying campaign.

Demand for Federal Action Intensifies

Efforts to get federal food labeling requirements have not been abandoned at the federal level. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a non-GMO label claim for meat and liquid egg products. This label tells consumers that the animals' feed is free of genetically modified corn, soy, alfalfa, and other organisms.

This is the first time that the department has approved a non-GMO label, which allows meat producers to verify that their products have met the requirements of a third-party organization's certification program. The Non-GMO Project, which is a nonprofit organization committed to preserving a non-GMO food supply, spent over a year seeking approval for their certification program from the USDA.

In Congress, on June 20, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bipartisan amendment to require labeling of genetically engineered salmon, if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decides to approve the fish. Aquabounty's "AquAdvantage" salmon is the first genetically engineered animal produced for human consumption, with year-round growth hormones that will allow the fish to grow at twice its natural rate. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mark Begich (D-AK) added the amendment to the FY 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which passed through the committee by a narrow margin of 15 to 14. The bill is expected to soon pass the full Senate, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Additionally, on April 24, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced a bill in both the Senate and House requiring the labeling of foods containing GMOs. The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act is the first national labeling bill to be introduced in Congress since 2011. Although it is uncertain whether the bill will pass through committee, the legislation has received the support of nine senators and 22 representatives, as well as over 100 organizations and businesses.

Challenges Remain

Despite public opinion polls that consistently show Americans want to know what is in their food and strongly support labeling of foods that containing GMOs, the recent victories come with several challenges and concerns.

First, many state lawmakers are concerned that companies will sue their state for passing GMO labeling laws. Last year, reports indicated that a Monsanto representative threatened such a lawsuit in Vermont if they passed a labeling bill.

Second, there have been federal efforts to undermine state progress on GMO labeling. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced an interstate commerce protection amendment to the House version of the 2013 Farm Bill that would block states from passing GMO labeling laws. Specifically, the amendment would prohibit states from establishing laws governing agricultural products that are involved in interstate commerce. This would include requiring labels for food produced outside the state.

In May, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the Senate version of the 2013 Farm Bill, which would have simply allowed states to enact their own laws requiring the labeling of GMOs. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the amendment, which was rejected in a 71-27 vote.

Finally, many fear that the industry may use the free trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and European Union, commonly referred to as the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), to undermine efforts to label GMOs. Foreign corporations could use investor protections to sue states that require GMO labeling, if the labeling requirement is called a "barrier to trade." The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) hopes the new trade agreement will remove the European Union's requirements for GMO labeling. Former USTR Ambassador Ron Kirk has said, "Whether it's GMOs or other issues, we want to deal with many of these non-tariff barriers that frustrate our trade."

Original Article by Sofia Plagakis in July 2013

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