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Senate should reject anti-consumer DARK Act

This week, the Senate Agriculture Committee will consider a new version of legislation that would deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown. It should be rejected.

The committee will consider legislation that has rightly been dubbed the “DARK” Act – for Denying Americans the Right to Know – because the proposal would block state GMO labeling laws without creating a national, mandatory GMO labeling system.  Few issues have been as exhaustively debated as GMO labeling. But polls continue to show that nine out of ten consumers want the right to know what’s in their food – regardless of age, income or even party affiliation. It turns out that American shoppers simply want the same rights as consumers in Russia, China and more than 60 other nations.

The opponents of mandatory labeling have instead proposed “voluntary” GMO labeling as an alternative. But, food companies have been able to make voluntary GMO and non-GMO claims since 2001 and consumers are more confused than ever. What’s more, Chairman Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) version of the DARK Act would actually make it harder for industry leaders like Campbell’s Soup to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMOs.

Labeling opponents have also proposed high-tech alternatives that would require consumers to use their smart phones to scan electronic codes on the food packages. But, nine out of ten consumers not only want mandatory GMO labels – they tell pollsters that they want GMO labels on the package, not high-tech gimmicks.  There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about digital alternatives to on-package disclosures – starting with the fact that many low income and elderly consumers don’t have smart phones.

Of course, food companies have fought mandatory disclosures as long as there have been food labels. Determined legislators and consumer advocates have always had to fight for labels designed to cure consumer confusion, including everything from “orange juice from concentrate” to “imitation crab.” The same goes for state-mandated food label disclosures, which are clearly permitted under the National Labeling and Education Act.  In this case, state GMO labeling laws are all virtually identical, so claims of a “patchwork” quilt are a (industry-engineered) red herring.

What’s clear is that mandatory GMO labeling will not increase food prices. Food companies change their labels all the time and studies show that a fact-based GMO disclosure will not act as a warning. Even Campbell’s Soup agrees that GMO labeling will not increase food prices.  Industry-funded studies that suggest otherwise wrongly presume that a disclosure on the back of the package will cause sudden changes in consumer choices – and so bogus that the Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave one such study “three Pinocchios.” Sadly, labeling opponents are making the same tired arguments that were made to fight the Nutrition Facts Panel nearly three decades ago.

It’s not just consumer groups who support GMO labeling. Because one-third of harvested acres not genetically engineered but are threatened by drifting GMO pollen and pesticides, many farm groups, including the National Farmers Union, support GMO labeling. So do more than 100 food industry CEOs and more than 400 of the nation’s leading chefs.

At a time when consumers are paying closer attention to their food choices than ever before, only Congress would seriously consider legislation to deny people the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown. The Senate Agriculture Committee should reject Roberts’ version of the DARK Act, and instead listen to the overwhelming chorus of American consumers – and voters – who want to know if their foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Faber is senior vice president for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and executive director of Just Label It.

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