Despite being opposed by Maine’s entire congressional delegation, a bill to create a national labeling policy for foods containing genetically modified ingredients is headed to President Obama’s desk after a decisive 306-117 vote Thursday in the House of Representatives. The White House has said Obama will sign it.

The bill, the third piece of GMO labeling legislation to come before Congress in 2016, will pre-empt the Vermont law that took effect July 1. It also will essentially toss Maine’s hard-fought – and tougher – labeling law, signed by Gov. Paul LePage in 2014 but on hold because it required all surrounding states to be on board, into the dustbin.

“It’s a huge disappointment, clearly,” said Ted Quaday, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, known as MOFGA, which was instrumental in getting the 2014 law passed. Congress was “hoodwinked,” Quaday said, by lobbyists for the big food companies, biotechnology companies and trade associations.

Groups like MOFGA have been fighting for decades to require transparent labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms. GMOs are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA. While farmers have always selectively bred plants, this manipulation is done in a lab, speeding up the process and creating certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides, and potential for higher yields, although recent research has suggested the latter is in question.

The Food and Drug Administration’s position is that these foods are safe, but the majority of consumers still want to know if their food contains GMO ingredients.

The food, farm and biotech industries – which includes GMO giant Monsanto – have spent $192.8 million to influence federal GMO labeling legislation and for other issues since 2013, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, which favors labeling. More than half of that has been spent in the past year alone. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food manufacturers, has hired 34 lobbyists since 2014 exclusively to advocate for anti-GMO-labeling legislation, the group found.


The end result, critics said, is the just-passed bill that is confusing and less stringent than legislation proposed by 17 states. Groups like the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association favored the bill, as did the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which called it a “win-win” and praised its bipartisan nature.

“Republicans and Democrats found consensus on the common ground that a patchwork of different state labeling laws would be a costly and confusing disaster for the nation’s food supply chain,” Pamela G. Bailey, the association’s president and CEO, said in a written statement.

But Maine’s delegation – Sen. Angus King, an independent, Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin, both Republicans, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, found consensus in opposing it.

Before the House vote Thursday, Pingree spoke against the bill, calling it “a complicated solution to a simple problem.” One of her chief complaints is that manufacturers have the choice of using a quick-response digital code on a label that would require consumers to scan it with a smart phone to find out specifics about which ingredients are derived from GMOs.

“An average 12-year-old will tell you this is an obsolete technology,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the labeling advocacy group Just Label It and also chairman of Stonyfield Farms. “Really, all consumers want is a simple disclosure.”

Pingree called for a list in “plain English” that would be available to all consumers, the way labeling is handled in other countries, including most of Europe, Japan and “even China,” she said.



Critics also say the federal legislation allows food manufacturers flexibility on labeling. In addition to text or the digital code, an as-yet-undetermined symbol would be allowed.

The Vermont law requires that items be labeled “produced with genetic engineering,” and many manufacturers have begun making the transition to text on the labels. Whole Foods, a major player in the upscale supermarket arena, set a goal in 2013 for full GMO labeling by 2018.

Even as Congress has debated labeling and lobbyists have worked against it, Campbell’s Soup Co., General Mills, Mars, Inc., Kellogg and ConAgra are introducing or have introduced labeling on packages of products containing GMOs. Dannon will label all GMO ingredients in its yogurt products by December 2017.

That may mostly be a response to public demand. In multiple polls, conducted on behalf of groups such as Just Label It and independent studies for publications such as Consumer Reports, more than 90 percent of respondents said they believe foods with genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such.

Hirshberg thinks that “smart and responsible brands, the ones that don’t want to get into trouble with consumers,” will move ahead with text labeling.


He also said there may be a “silverish” lining to passage of the bill.

“The fact that we got anything at all is a sign of progress,” he said. “Commercial agricultural interests still control much of our (food) policy.”

Lawmakers from rural states overwhelmingly supported the legislation, including some Democrats up for re-election in contested races. Republicans were overwhelmingly for it, siding with agriculture groups that said it was needed to bring more certainty to farmers who grow genetically modified corn and soybeans.


Now that the bill has passed, critics are gearing up for the next phase in the GMO saga, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture begins what will be a two-year rulemaking process.

“People are not going to give up and walk away just because Congress passed a goofy law,” said Quaday, the MOFGA official. “There is a long rulemaking process ahead and we will do everything we can to engage in that process.”


The federal legislation encompasses some foods that were exempted from the Vermont law, but it also allows the USDA to determine how much of a “bioengineered substance” must be present to require a GMO label. If that threshold is high, advocates are likely to be further disappointed. But Hirshberg, who plans to be back in Washington next week to continue his work with Just Label It, takes a philosophical approach.

“Even I have to admit, our state bills still exempted 42 percent of food. They weren’t perfect. The truth is, we had a solution that was only covering about half the food,” he said.

The food industry says 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain genetically modified ingredients, most of those corn- and soy-based. The bulk of the nation’s genetically engineered crops are eaten by livestock or made into popular processed food ingredients such as cornstarch, soybean oil or high-fructose corn syrup.

Soda contains massive amounts of corn syrup, but would not be labeled under the legislation. Most sugar beets grown in the U.S. are also genetically modified. Only a handful of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables are available in the produce aisle, including Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini and squash, and some sweet corn.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg contributed to this report.


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