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Why Food Manufacturers — And Few Others — Are Thrilled About The GMO Labeling Bill

The bill approved by the Senate Thursday has fairly lax labeling requirements compared to a Vermont law.

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A bill approved by the Senate late on Thursday to create a national standard for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients is already facing strong criticism from labeling advocates.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would allow food manufacturers to use "a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link" to find out if a product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Short of a clear label, the link or QR code could include such language as, "Scan here for more food information." Small manufacturers would be allowed to list a phone number.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture would decide what genetically engineered ingredients would require disclosure, and create a labeling standard within two years. It did not lay out penalties for not complying.

But some say there's a problem with allowing labeling via digital links and phone numbers. "Many food consumers will simply not take the time needed to inform themselves about the ingredients of the many food items they purchase," said William Lesser, professor in science and business at Cornell's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, in a statement.

The bill's requirements are far less demanding than a Vermont law, which requires labels such as "produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering,” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.” It became the first state to mandate disclosures on genetic engineering when it went into effect July 1.

The new federal standard, if approved, would pre-empt Vermont's law.

Food companies favor a federal standard and have complained that different labeling laws by state would confuse people and be expensive.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group for the food and beverage industry, said in a statement that it "applauds Senate passage of national GMO disclosure bill" and called it "a milestone moment in the efforts to provide consumers clear and consistent information about their food and beverage products and to prevent a patchwork of costly and confusing state labeling laws."

For now, some companies such as Campbell Soup and General Mills have made their packaging nationwide comply with Vermont's law.

The GMA has been advocating its SmartLabel, a system of web sites, apps, and QR codes directing consumer to more information. Critics of this kind of solution said shoppers shouldn't need a smartphone to know whether their foods contain GE ingredients.

Despite praise from the GMA, the Senate's bill has already been criticized by supporters and opponents of GMO labeling alike.

Steven Salzberg, a professor of biomedical engineering, computer science, and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email to BuzzFeed News that GMO technology is safe, and called GMO labelling of any sort "a bad idea."

I think GMO labelling is a terrible idea - not because we should hide or somehow keep ingredients secret, but because we can't inform a public that is ignorant about genetics and genomics. There is no way a simple label is going to explain what "GMO" means for any particular food. If a consumer sees a label, though, he/she is highly likely to infer there's something fishy going on.

Meanwhile, vocal labeling supporter Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm, blasted the bill for falling short on transparency, and said in a statement:

The GMO labeling legislation passed by the Senate last night 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."

Genetically engineered foods have available in the U.S. for about 20 years now.

The GE crops in the U.S. include: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and yellow crookneck squash, according to labeling advocacy group Just Label It. USDA data show 92% of corn, 94% of cotton, and 94% of soybeans planted in the country in 2015 were genetically engineered.

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved sales of a genetically engineered salmon, the first GE animal okayed for sale as food.

Critics say generically engineered crops and the use of herbicides they are designed to withstand will have severe environmental impacts, such as encouraging the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Supporters of genetic engineering say the technology is safe and necessary to feed the world's growing population.

Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.

Contact Venessa Wong at venessa.wong@buzzfeed.com.

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