From “Dark Act” to “Disappearing Act”

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Karen Howard, Organic & Natural Health Association, GMO Labeling Act

The GMO Labeling Act legislation is now federal law. It seemingly defies every criticism that our do-nothing-Congress is gridlocked and unable to pass legislation that benefits the wellbeing of the American population. National standards, we’ve been told, will protect consumers from the “confusion” and “increased costs” of a “patchwork quilt” of state legislation created at the hands of the Vermont legislature. The truth? State legislation was collaboratively crafted to harmonize requirements across state lines while honoring each state’s power to enforce, but the season for truth has seemingly passed us by.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), among many others, declares we have successfully enacted national labeling legislation, when in fact all we have accomplished is passage of a poorly written subversion of states’ rights in exchange for mandating companies to use a handy dandy QR code consumers can scan with a smart phone to determine if the products in their grocery carts contain GMO ingredients. No problem! Early polling results are in. Consumers won’t use QR codes. I can’t imagine any Congress, even this one, accepting the use of QR codes as a substitute for a nutrition label.

There were multiple reasons this bill should not have been passed.

  • The FDA’s technical evaluation of the bill was highly critical, noting it “may be difficult” for any GMO to qualify for labeling.
  • There were no Congressional hearings; no floor amendments were allowed.
  • The restaurant and food service industry is exempt from this proposed legislation, keeping both proprietors and customers in the dark;
  • There is no set limit on how much of any GMO ingredient a food can contain and still be considered non-GMO;
  • There are no enforcement provisions to ensure compliance;
  • There are no definitions in the law. Small package, very small package and small manufacturer remain undefined – no ‘small’ oversight; and
  • The Pacific and EU trade deals will override the law, since it must be interpreted “consistent with” our current and future trade agreements.

Are corporate interests at the heart of the bill’s passage? Absolutely. Politics is both a game of chess and a recipe for making sausage. It works best when advocates (aka consumers) have a voice equal to that of corporate interests. In this case, when the OTA came out in support of S. 274, this sausage was cooked. Everyone had to cover to endorse, vote for, and enact this legislation.

Passage of this bill negates the transparent steps some of our nation’s largest food producers took to clearly disclose GMO ingredients on actual labels. It’s as though GMOs are being allowed to disappear from public view. The government has two years to implement this bill, but no law firm or association can fix the inherent flaws in this law. Two years is a long time for companies to ignore the expressed desires of the purchasing public.

Government legislation and regulation aside, it is people who are driving real change in the nation’s supply chain. The American Grassfed Association, Nature Valley, Natural Grocers, Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins, and Natur-Tyme are moving the organic dial forward at every step, upping the ante every day for quality, production and sales of non-GMO foods.

And it’s not just food under the consumer spotlight. In the supplements world, the topic of GMO labeling is almost as popular as efforts to define natural. Yet, consumers have spoken: transparency is an essential element of consumer trust. Problematic, expensive and complicated dietary supplements frequently include GMO corn, soy and sugar beet. As ONH Board member Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers has explained, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), maltodextrin (a filler), the sweetener sucrose and soy lecithin are just a few of the GMO ingredients used in supplements. Yes, there are non-GMO raw ingredient substitutes, and yes they are more expensive. The industry owes its customer base full disclosure.

When faced with the challenge of defining natural and issuing a certification, Organic & Natural Health took the position that there could be no natural product that first did not meet the organic standard. Our data, combined with market sales, demonstrate the public wants the organic standard. We know the average consumer mistakenly believes natural and organic are equivalent. For that reason, we are proponents of a standard higher than organic in the marketplace. Our position is this: Continual quality improvement in testing, adoption of regenerative agricultural practices, as well as traceability in manufacturing and processing is required for the sake of the integrity of our food supply. These principles will enable widespread access to quality foods and health products, and ensure the transparency consumers demand.


Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association, is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and health care organizations to develop innovative health care policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, health care technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration.

The Organic & Natural Health Association was founded in 2014 and is dedicated to creating and promoting transparent business practices that safeguard access to organic and natural food, products and services. The nonprofit organization has been actively working on many initiatives to improve the integrity of the natural products industry while creating a groundswell of support from leading industry companies. 

More on Organic & Natural Health at www.organicandnatural.org; follow on Twitter @OrgNatHealth or www.facebook.com/organicandnaturalhealthassociation.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in bylined articles are not necessarily those of the publisher.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 8/15/2016