A mislabeled label bill

An editorial in this space a week ago drew attention to a bill in the U.S. Senate that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The editorial noted that the labeling bill wouldn’t actually require labels — packages could list an 800 number or a code that could be scanned with a smart phone to lead consumers to information about a product’s GMO content. Now Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is warning of other deficiencies that make the legislation look even worse.

The bill is a compromise reached by Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The compromise has emerged in response to Vermont’s adoption of a GMO labeling requirement that took effect Friday. Nationwide labeling rules would be vastly preferable to a patchwork of state laws — provided the uniform labeling gives consumers the information an overwhelming majority of them say they want.

The Senate bill fails to meet that minimal standard. Not only would consumers be forced to use their smart phones — presuming they had such devices — at their own expense to learn about the GMO content of products on grocery shelves, the information they would find might be misleading or useless. Merkley says a long list of products containing or derived from GMO foods would be exempt from the labeling requirement, including such common ingredients as oils, starches and purified proteins.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes no position on GMO labeling, on grounds that there is no scientific basis for concern about GMO ingredients’ effect on health or nutrition. In technical comments on the Senate bill, however, the FDA noted that GMO labels might not be required on any foods, because “it would have to be proven that a GMO product’s modification could not be achieved through conventional breeding or be found in nature — something near impossible to determine.”

If the labeling requirement applied to any food products, manufacturers would be free to ignore it — Merkley says the Senate bill provides for no fines or penalties for violations. Hard-to-find information, near-universal exemptions and toothless enforcement make the bill worse than worthless. The Senate should reject the legislation and try again.