A Few Good Ones Among Compromised Politicians

consumers need to know what is in their food

Hundreds of people march to protest against GMO companies in Cape Town, on 21 May, 2016 © uSpiked

In Brief

  • In 2008 the then Senator Barack Obama when bidding for the US presidency undertook to rid Washington of lobbyists – the pledge flopped
  • Despite its population size, Vermont is a maverick State that refuses to join the flow. Elected officials there do what they believe is right by the State's just over 600,000 population
  • Officials have resisted big money being dished out by lobbyists and passed a GMO labeling law that is now causing headaches for compromised Washington politicians
  • The law, which weathered numerous efforts to scatter it, is set to come into force in a few hours 

“If GMOs were so good, Monsanto would be insisting on labeling foods that contain it, not fighting to prevent labeling.” Charles Oertel on Facebook.

If you drive through Vermont State you will notice one big difference from the rest of the US - there are no billboards.

Vermont, which is the second-least populated US State and the first to ban slavery some 239 years ago, takes issues that affect its around 630,000 residents very seriously.

The law banning billboards was passed in 1968 to preserve the State’s famous natural beauty, thanks to the efforts of one legislator, Ted Riehle. Riehle staved off stiff opposition from farmers, who profited from leasing their land, and advertisers who needed space to hawk their ads.

Now, following years of hard work by legislators, advocates and advocacy groups, the State achieved yet another first: on 1 July, a law that would require mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ingredients comes into effect. Since the Vermont State House passed the labelling law in 2014, powerful political and corporate opponents have challenged it.

Under the Act, manufacturers of packaged raw agricultural commodities shall label the package offered for retail sale with conspicuous words, “produced with genetic engineering”. In the case of any raw agricultural commodity that is not separately packaged, the retailer is required to post the label “produced with genetic engineering” on the retail store shelf or bin in which the commodity is displayed for sale.
Manufacturers of processed food that contains GMO ingredients shall be required to label packages with the words: ‘partially produced with genetic engineering; “may be produced with genetic engineering”; or “produced with genetic engineering.”

Lab-made or not? Consumers need to know

The Act exempts specific foods, for example, those consisting entirely or derived entirely from an animal that has not itself been produced with genetic engineering, regardless of whether it was fed with GMO food and substances.

Violators of this law will be fined up to US$1,000 per day, per product.

Large food companies such as General Mills, Kellogg and Mars had said they intended to label nationwide, rather than for just one small State. Coca-Cola Co. said it would remove some of its beverages from Vermont stores this week.

On Tuesday June 28, 2016, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement saying he was ‘proud that Vermont has led the country into GMO labelling.’

“This is a triumph for ordinary Americans over the powerful interests of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations,” he said.

But, Washington’s ‘special interest’ practitioners, otherwise called lobbyists – the same ones President Obama, the Senator Obama of the ‘yes-we-can’ era – had pledged to get rid of, were quietly at work to scatter Vermont’s efforts.

While some food companies were mulling implementing the requirements nationally, others held hush-hush talks to challenge the State legislation. The quiet challenge appeared to have come from two fronts that were definitely not through the courts; on behalf of their clients, the special interest groups threw funds to deter Senator Sanders bid for the Democratic candidacy while at the same time seeking friendly ears within the US Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The rush deal reached late Thursday evening by Republican and Democratic members of the Committee could potentially scupper the Vermont law. Members of the committee are pushing Senate to consider a compromise bill that claims to seek a national solution to labelling of GMO foods.

Evidently this so called compromise bill, which appears driven by lobbyists hired by rich Agribusinesses, chemical and biotech companies, is a smack on GMO labelling efforts and a threat to Vermont’s (and other States’) anti-GMO law. [Could the timing have been more coincidental! The deal was reached on the same day Britain’s referendum against EU happened. We must wonder how much of the ‘leave' campaign resources were provided through off-shore lobbyists – editor}  

The Senate 'compromise bill' proposes national disclosure standards that would allow companies to voluntarily disclose GMO ingredients through Quick Response (QR) codes for smartphone users, or through an on-package symbol or language that would be approved by the Agriculture Department, and through labelling secondary sources such as websites and phone numbers.

The QR codes would appear with the words: “Scan here for more food information” instead of on-package labels. Small companies would have the option of putting a website URL or phone number on labels accompanied by the text: “Call this number or see this website for more food information”.

Interestingly, the Bill proposes no penalties for labelling violations. Also, the USDA would have no authority to order recalls of products that don’t comply. This means the law would be meaningless.

Some other key aspects of the Senate’s compromise bill include:

  • The labelling standards would become mandatory after two years when the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service would be expected to have finalised rules on disclosure requirements
  • USDA would, within one year after the date of enactment, conduct a study to determine potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to GMO disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods
  • Very small food manufacturers, as defined by the Agriculture Marketing Service would be completely exempt from disclosure requirement
  • Meat and dairy products would be exempt even if GMO inputs were used in animal production

The bill would also narrow the definition of genetic engineering thus exempting the latest biotechnology methods such as gene editing from national disclosure standards.

If the bill passes, it would nullify Vermont’s law and stop any other State from enacting labelling laws that differ from the federal standards.

Sanders said he would vehemently oppose the Senate's proposed law.

“We cannot allow Vermont’s law to be overturned by bad federal legislation that has just been announced. I will do everything I can to defeat this bill, beginning by putting a hold on it in the Senate...The overwhelming majority of Americans favour GMO labelling. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat.”

Just Label It, a campaign created to advocate for the labelling of GMO foods in the US, said the proposal requiring many consumers to rely on smart-phones to learn basic information about their food is disappointing.

“This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package,” said Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Just Label It.

America’s largest chemical and biotechnology companies together with a few large food companies have spent millions of dollars fighting various labelling initiatives, while still claiming their products are safe. This, according to Just Label It, “…will continue to be a David versus Goliath battle – an unequal fight between the American consumer and corporate money.”

With millions being spent on lobbying, it is important to reflect on forethoughts of the 19th Century French critic and journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr of the “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” fame – (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Nobody would agree with Karr more than President Barack Obama or the then Senator Obama of the ‘Yes We Can’ fame. In his first bid for American presidency, the then US Senator had pledged to rid Washington of ‘Special Interests Groups’ otherwise known as lobbyists.

In his State of the Union Address a year after taking office, he declared: “We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue – to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve.”

That declaration was long overdue for the Americans and indeed the whole world. But just as Karr had warned, things stayed the same. The data we have gathered in the past few months indicate that expenditure by lobbyists on behalf of their clients have indeed gone up several folds since Obama took office. It would then be right to say that the threats of shutdown simply made the fees levied by political elites to escalate.

In 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration approved commercial sale of genetically modified foods starting with the FLAVR SAVR tomato, which was made to have a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes. Since then genetic engineering has primarily focused on cash crops such as corn, soybean, canola and cotton seed oil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 94% of US soybean crop, 92% of corn crop and 94% of cotton was genetically modified by 2015.

Yet, the US has lagged behind in the labelling of GMOs.

The 64 countries that value their citizens' right to know. Will the State of Vermont appear yellow on this map from July 1, 2016?

Research conducted by US environmental watchdog, Center for Food Safety, identified some 64 countries that require mandatory GE food labelling. The US isn’t among them.

Russia, China, Australia, Turkey, Brazil and the European Union are among the 64 on CFS’s GE Food Labelling Laws Map. In Africa, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritius, Senegal and Tunisia made the list.

Andrew Kimbrell, the watchdog's executive director said the US is ‘truly lost on GE labelling’.

“It’s frustrating and offensive that Americans are denied the information about their food that those in Kenya and Saudi Arabia receive,” he said at the launch of the Food Labelling Laws Map.

While CFS said it was encouraged to see the number of countries that have embraced labelling, various groups are increasingly raising concern about the dismal implementation of labelling laws and blatant violation by the majority of companies.

One such group is the South Africa-based African Centre for Biosafety. The organisation has complained repeatedly that only a handful of companies label foods with 5% or more GM content, as required by South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act.