Will Obama's New GMO Food Labeling Law Make Grocery Shopping Clearer or More Confusing?

Does the law mean a bright or dark future for food-label transparency?

Food label debates, always a controversial topic, are reaching a fever pitch after a new GMO labeling law was signed into law by President Obama late last week.

The new legislation gives food companies the option of mentioning on their labels whether their product was created using genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and lets those companies choose a variety of ways of including that information. This act supercedes state laws, like the stricter one in Vermont, which requires companies to state the GMO ingredients more clearly on the label. Under the new law, companies have the option of listing the GMO ingredients on the label; or using a QR code that customers can scan to find out about those ingredients; or simply referring consumers to a phone number or web site for further information. But if all the information doesn't have to be clearly spelled out in front of customers in the supermarket, how much of a chance do consumers have to find out what's in the food they're buying?

GMO corn is a common ingredient in many products containing corn syrup.

Opponents call the law the DARK act (Deny Americans the Right to Know), arguing that it leaves customers in the dark by not giving them transparency into what they’re eating. The food industry has been vocal in its response, with critics of the law pointing out that many customers don't know how a QR code works, and don't tend to visit their local supermarket armed with a Wi-Fi-ready smartphone. Proponents argue that the law is at least one step toward greater transparency.

Some comments have been more measured than others. Dan Gillotte, CEO of Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas, tells The Feast that "As a natural foods cooperative, Wheatsville is in favor of GMO labeling so customers can have a better understanding of what they are eating and putting in their bodies." In that respect, these laws are a step forward for consumers, but Gillotte qualifies his comments: “That said, we are concerned that the labeling required by the new law is less consumer friendly than what would have been required by laws passed in other states, like Vermont. All in all, some labeling is better than none, but the labeling measures required by the new law are not as transparent as we would have wanted,” says Gillotte.

GMO soybeans are widely found in packaged food products.

Other critics are denouncing the option of using QR codes to list the GMO content: “These bills do a great disservice to the public while catering to corporations with significantly different motives than the people they serve,” says Michael Joseph, CEO and co-founder of Green Chef, told The Feast. “Customers want and deserve to know what is in their food, and the Vermont GMO labeling legislation reflects this desire for clear and informative labeling. The law passed by the government instead uses QR codes; QR codes on packaging are exclusionary and ineffective. The average American does not know what a QR code is or how to even use it,” says Joseph, who adds that lawmakers have disregarded the demand of their constituents. “The government should protect consumer rights and not pander to corporations.”

Defenders of the law see it as a promising move toward greater transparency. “The Federal GMO labeling bill is a positive step for a number of reasons,” Glenn Kerner, a partner in Goodwin’s Food Litigation Practice, tells The Feast. Glenn recently published a whitepaper analyzing the litigation and legislative action on GMO labeling in food products. “The bill creates one single framework to be used nationwide. The passage of the bill avoids the possibility of a 50 state patchwork of bills, where there would be different requirements and standards in different states. That would have potentially led to chaos for consumers and the food industry. One national standard allows for certainty, clarity and uniformity,” says Kerner.

“The bill is the result of a bipartisan compromise and so, while not perfect, allows consumers to have the information concerning food ingredients that they have been looking for," Kerner adds.

Top Chef judge, restaurateur and Food Policy Action co-founder Tom Colicchio, who has lobbied against the act along with thousands of chefs nationwide, also said on Twitter that the legislation is an imperfect compromise:

Some critics denounced the bill on Twitter this way:

Earlier in the week, before the law passed, Colicchio told The Feast that "People aren’t making correlations between food and what people are voting for, and we have to change that." He added, "Some people say food is food and don’t make policy out of it. But eveyrthing we eat is touched by policy. The question is what kind of food do we want to support?"

Either way, the debate over the Dark act might end up triggering more sustained involvement on the part of the voting public, and political candidates, in food-related issues. Still, if this is a case of "all journeys start with a first step," it remains to be seen where exactly this journey is headed.

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