Landing on labels

WASHINGTON D.C. — The new standard for labeling genetically modified ingredients in food is sitting on President Barack Obama’s desk.

The bill requires food labels to announce any ingredients with tweaked DNA in one of three different ways: by adding straightforward text language to the label, a symbol created by the federal government, or a quick response (QR) digital code scanned by a smartphone.

That’s taking into account a 2016 study from the Food Marketing Institute that says only 20 percent of shoppers scan digital codes in grocery stores.

According to the measure, any food that’s subject to labeling requirements under federal law would have to comply with the new law, and the new legislation wouldn’t affect other federal labeling requirements.

Regulators get up to two years to write the rules with the new legislation, and small food manufacturers have three years to comply. The law also appoints the U.S. Department of Agriculture to evaluate the system after the first year.

“The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association is extremely pleased with the passage of S. 764 and looks forward to President Obama signing the measure into law,” said Bennette Misalucha, executive director of HCIA. “We agree that this national standard is needed for bioengineered food labeling and disclosure to ease confusion that would be caused by a state-by-state patchwork of requirements.”

But, the new prospective law a few caveats.

There currently isn’t a labeling for raw produce and fish is voluntary with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When it comes to prepared foods, though, 80 percent of which are considered to contain GMO ingredients, the labeling will apply.

The other exception with the new labeling bill is that not all GMO ingredients would have to be labeled. If modified genes are removed in the manufacturing process, which happens with things like soy, oil, sugar and corn syrup — the companies can ditch the notification.

The GMO labeling bill passed through Congress with a 65-32 Senate vote and a 306-117 vote in the House. Hawaii’s Sen. Mazie Hirono voted in favor of the bill and Sen. Brian Schatz opposed the measure. Hawaii’s U.S. Reps. Mark Takai and Tulsi Gabbard both opposed the bill as well.

“The consumers of our nation deserve to have clarity and be able to make their own decisions on the type of food they buy,” Takai said in a news release.

While food companies are hailing the legislation as a victory, GMO labeling advocates are saying the bipartisan bill is a step in the wrong direction.

Jeri Di Pietro, of Hawaii SEED, said she thinks it’s sad to see her elected representatives vote for a bill that would not properly label GMO products.

“Not only is a QR code a poor and unjust substitute for proper labeling, but the amendments allow GE (genetically engineered) oils, such as corn, soy or canola, to be exempt,” Di Pietro said.

She also called into question the timing of the bill, which comes just weeks after the July 1 start of Vermont’s more stringent labeling law.

“To be clear, this is a preemption bill, invalidating the hard fought labeling bills in several states,” Di Pietro said. “The timing of this discriminatory bill is no coincidence, with President Obama indicating he will sign before Congress adjourns for the longest summer break in at least three decades.”

Some food manufacturers already use digital codes on their labels, and the bill allows those companies to update their online information without changing the label.

Campbell Soup Co., General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co. and Mars, Inc. have already begun to place GMO-labeled items on shelves and a spokeswoman from Campbell said the nation’s largest soup manufacturer will continue to print labels with text announcing GMO ingredients.

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