Despite wide support, measure may not get a vote
By Deirdre Cummings and Martin Dagoberto
(as originally published Commonwealth Magazine, April 19. 2016)
MOST PEOPLE CARE what’s in their food. Whether the reason is dietary, religious, moral, or a concern about flavor, we like to know – and many need to know – what we’re eating. That’s why nearly everything we consume is labeled, and why those labels are so important to us. In January, Whole Foods had to recall 75,000 pounds of frozen pepperoni pizzas, not because the food was bad or dangerous, but because it was incorrectly labeled. Those labels matter. And yet, still, in 2016, there is no law requiring labeling of a genetically modified organism, or GMO, ingredient in Massachusetts. We can and should change that this year.
The country’s first mandatory GMO labeling bill is set to take effect in Vermont in July. As a result, Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, and ConAgra have all announced over the last few weeks that they will begin to label their products to comply. Despite overwhelming support for labeling across the country (93 percent in an ABC News poll conducted last June), it’s clear that these companies would not be taking this step if not for the Vermont law.
Northeastern states have led the way on this issue for years (Connecticut and Maine have also passed labeling laws), and remain the only US governments that have taken action. Sixty-four countries, including member nations of the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, Turkey, and South Africa already require GMO food labeling. If we want to see GMO ingredients labeled on our food (and 93 percent of us do), Massachusetts and other states must step forward and set the standard.
Last year, 154 of Massachusetts’s 200 legislators, including big majorities of both the Senate and the House, of Democrats and Republicans, joined together to cosponsor The Genetic Engineering Transparency Food Labeling Act. Yet, despite the support of more than 75 percent of the Legislature, the bill, H. 4156, is far from guaranteed even a vote by the Legislature. That’s a major problem for anyone who wants labeling of GMO ingredients, because despite calls for a new federal law, Congress is not coming to the rescue anytime soon.
In 2015, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the so-called “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” which is more properly titled the “Denying Americans the Right-to-Know,” or DARK, Act. The DARK Act not only prohibits the federal government from mandating GMO labeling, it also prevents states from passing labeling laws, and instead institutes a framework for voluntary labeling.
Among the many problems with this proposed law, which has been pushed by the Grocery Manufacturers of America and its allies in the biochemical and agrochemical industries, is that it’s based on the false premise that a majority of major food companies will voluntarily label their products. These same industry groups are currently pulling out the stops to pass the DARK Act in the US Senate, desperately trying to roll back Vermont’s law.
We have often heard that states are the laboratories of democracy. Important reforms, demanded by citizens, are often debated, vetted, and passed on the state level where lawmakers are closer to their constituents and less influenced by industry giants and their armies of lobbyists. Only after being faced with the prospect of negotiating different laws in different states and wasting millions of dollars in uphill battles are powerful monied interests willing to come to the table on the national level to adopt simple reforms for the whole country. The reality is the states, particularly Vermont, have pushed the major food companies to label GMOs, and must continue to do so.
As the Whole Foods pizza recall proves, we all want to know what’s in our food. And as the debate in Washington proves, it is more important than ever for Massachusetts to side with consumers and pass the GMO labeling bill. By joining with Vermont, we not only provide our fellow citizens with the right to know about GMOs, we also strengthen the likelihood of getting a meaningful national GMO labeling law for the entire country.