When Congress votes this week on legislation to block GMO labeling, far more will be hanging in the balance than the simple question of whether consumers will be allowed to know whether their food was produced with a novel – and still largely unproven – technology.
Much broader principles are at stake.
One is whether consumers have the right to use their food dollars in ways that reflect their values.
According to Consumer Reports, consumers want to know more than ever about their food, including what’s in it, where it’s from, who made it and how it’s produced. We’re living in an unprecedented era of “food democracy” that should be embraced, not frustrated.
Another principle is whether states can provide their citizens basic information about food.
Long before Congress created the Nutrition Facts Panel in 1991, states were requiring food companies to tell us more about our food.
- More than 40 states regulate the use of “sell by” and “use by” dates on food labels.
- Some states require food labels to indicate the presence of hazardous ingredients.
- Many states require labeling to disclose the origin of seafood, especially catfish, and whether fish was “farm-raised” or wild-caught.
- Many states regulate the labeling of “cottage foods” made in the home.
- Two states require food labels to disclose whether certain fresh foods were previously frozen.
- Some states require labels on bottled water to help consumers learn more about water quality.
When Congress passed the law mandating the Nutrition Facts Panel, lawmakers carefully crafted the “preemption” provisions of the National Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) to preserve the states’ authority to require disclosures on food packages.
While Congress blocked states from tinkering with the information panel itself and the ingredient lines, the law was carefully crafted to allow states to compel other disclosures.
Now that carefully crafted compromise between federal and state authority is in jeopardy.
H.R. 1599, dubbed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act or DARK Act by opponents, would block state laws requiring GMO labeling. Three states have passed such laws and 17 considered similar laws in 2015.
The DARK would also rob states of the ability to prevent food companies from claiming that GMO foods are “natural.”
No wonder some Republicans, including Chris Gibson, R-NY, along with most Democrats, are rejecting the DARK Act.
Consumers want to make their own food choices, and states have frequently led the way in facilitating consumer choice.
Now, Congress will have to make its own choice – to side with states and the public or to side with big food companies that don’t trust consumers to decide for themselves.