How Pat Roberts’ bill could actually result in labeling GMOs

Debbie Stabenow D-Michigan, Chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, with Frank N. Foode during a visit in 2013

Last week, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) introduced a bill to the US Senate Agricultural Committee that concerns labeling genetically engineered foods, or GMOs. The main thrust of the bill seeks to pre-empt state legislatures from creating their own unique label requirements for GMOs, instead instructing the USDA to come up with a voluntary labeling scheme. The Senate Agricultural Committee, headed by Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) who has expressed a sense of urgency in addressing this topic, reviewed the bill on Tuesday March 1st, and approved it 14-6. While proponents of mandatory GMO labeling have derided this bill as a means to prevent GMOs from being labeled, a closer analysis reveals that it has some unique characteristics that might actually result in GMOs being labeled, but not necessarily the way that labeling proponents have in mind.
GMO labeling is an intensely political topic, involving both science and risk perceptions, as well as economics, international and domestic politics, and more. Funded largely by industries that compete with genetically engineered foods for market share, several GMO labeling advocacy organizations have launched campaigns that focus almost exclusively on lobbying for mandatory GMO labels on a state-by-state basis. Their efforts have paid off with Vermont being the first state to pass mandatory requirements for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such (exempting Vermont’s large dairy industry), effective on July 1st this year. Opponents of mandatory labeling have argued that the unique state-by-state laws being considered (and some passed) will create a patchwork of inconsistent labeling requirements in each state, interrupting interstate commerce. Lawsuits are currently underway challenging the Vermont Law, while various political efforts have been made to pre-empt any state laws on a federal level. Last year, the House of Representatives passed HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would block states from imposing their own labeling standards. Without a matching bill in the Senate, however, the provisions of HR 1599 would not go into effect. Other efforts of inserting language into the Omnibus spending bill have failed.
If the Vermont labeling bill stands, on July 1st any company selling products containing genetically engineered foods that are not labeled as such would face fines to the tune of $1,000 a day for each violation. At the very least, costs are expected to rise for food manufacturers who would need to trace ingredients to comply with the law, or simply place a nebulous “may contain” statement to avoid legal liability. One food manufacturer, Campbell’s, appears to have “voluntarily” labeled its products as containing GMOs in advance of the July 1st deadline, but the absence of action on the part of other companies has led to speculations that a large number of products may not be sold in Vermont anymore as doing so becomes illegal.  Hence the sense of urgency felt by members of the Senate Agricultural Committee in resolving this issue, as well as at the USDA which has held several meetings with stakeholders to try to reach a compromise. There have even been rumors that Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Democratic presidential candidate might filibuster the bill if it becomes introduced to the Senate.
Despite all the political debate about this bill, few have taken a deep look into the proposed text of the bill. (PDF, section-by-section markup) The bill does preempt states from determining how (and if) GMOs would be labeled, which has led proponents of labeling to call it the “DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act”, and they argue that any voluntary standard would leave many GMOs unlabeled.
The dispute over mandatory vs voluntary labeling is based on assumptions about how the labels will be perceived. Proponents of labeling have argued that GMO labeling is a “Right to Know” issue, and most people when specifically asked about GMO labeling do agree that they would like to know which foods are made from GMOs (while voting down every labeling measure that has hit the ballots). But the GMO labeling advocacy organizations have also revealed that their agenda also includes attaching a stigma to foods containing GMOs to increase the market appeal of competing goods, often as a means to eliminate GMOs from agriculture. Opponents of mandatory labeling cite costs of segregating and tracing GMO foods, as well as unnecessarily stigmatizing foods that are no less safe than any other, and a desire to protect the use of GMOs, often supported by members of the food and biotech industry. There has been little progress in this political debate, but there is one section of Pat Roberts bill that has the potential to turn assumptions about consumer perceptions upside-down. Rather than instructing the FDA to impose labels on GMOs, the bill proposes that the USDA create voluntary labels, which given the consumer perceptions of the USDA means that it could give some products a marketing edge.

What USDA GMO labels would mean

USDA-Meat-grade-shieldsThink about the USDA labels in the meat section of your grocery store. What do they mean to the consumer? If you are like me and you see “USDA Choice” or “USDA Prime” on a food package (or a restaurant menu), it means greater confidence in the quality of the meat, versus a package that just says: “Beef”. The same goes for the many foods, fibers, and other products that the USDA grades and helps producers market to the public through the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Having the USDA come up with a voluntary labeling program could potentially enhance the marketability of foods labeled as containing GMOs.
I’m not just speculating about this – there is actually science about consumer perceptions that supports this argument. An experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota by Onyango et al. tested consumers’ “Willingness to Pay” for corn chips with different labels. These kinds of experiments are used to calculate how much more or less consumers are willing to pay for different products. They found that from a range of GMO labels tested, two of them actually got a 4-5% price boost over non-labeled chips, and a whopping 11% over foods labeled as “contains genetically modified corn.” One of these two labels explained benefits from lower pesticide use, and the other said “contains USDA approved genetically modified corn.”
WTP-GMOInvoking the USDA increased confidence in the food, and from a communication standpoint it both communicates information about the GMO content as well as information about regulation of GMOs. This means that although “Contains NO genetically modified corn” got a 10% boost in price, that price advantage in the marketplace could be cut almost in half by a carefully crafted label that actually states that the food was made from GMOs. Note, also, that “May contain” had almost no effect on the price, and was the only result that was not statistically significant.
Therefore, Pat Roberts’ bill could result in a voluntary label that would make products more competitive, and offset the added cost of tracking and/or testing. This bill could actually result in a proliferation of GMO labels – but labels that don’t stigmatize and communicate the safety and/or benefits of genetic engineering.

Can consumer science rescue us from politics?

The GMO labeling debate has become stagnant, and there has been little movement either direction in the political sphere. But there is hope that using science to design a better label could rescue us from the current political rut. Some label-advocating organizations have made it clear that their political goals are to get rid of genetically engineered crops, and to use the labels to pressure companies to stop purchasing them. But others have indicated that they are interested in the labels for consumer choice and may be open to designing labels that are non-stigmatizing. If you are pro-labeling, would a positive, non-stigmatizing label be acceptable to you? If you are anti-labeling, would a positive label that increases its appeal change your position?
A positive, voluntary GMO label that is regulated by the USDA may in fact be a solution to the “Right to Know” vs “Increased cost” debate. If it leads to widespread adoption, it will inform consumers about the presence of GMOs as well as communicate other important aspects of their safety by association with the USDA. Because it would be a positive voluntary label, it will give an economic advantage to producers that can implement it efficiently and adopt it early, while taking away the stigma that producers worry may lead to rejection of their products. Finally, without the lawsuits and fines brought on by various mandatory labeling proposals (such as the Vermont law) there is less chance of businesses being targeted with expensive fines and lawsuits.
I made a comparison of the likely impacts of different labeling proposals. In version 1 of this chart I have only included mandatory “does contain” and “may contain” and Senator Roberts’ Proposal. According to Politico, Senator Merkley from Oregon will be introducing a second GMO labeling bill, and when details about this bill come out I will update the graphic. If there is any more information you would like to suggest that I include, let me know in the comments.
The problem with the current political debate about GMO labels is that the side that is designing these labeling laws are doing so in a fashion that will give market advantage to competing industries, hence it is strongly opposed by mainstream food brands and biotech companies. If the “Right to Know” argument is the real reason behind the labeling campaigns, and not market share, then there should be no problem with designing and implementing a positive label. However, when I wrote about why the California Proposition 37 and why it failed, there was little interest in such an idea. The labeling proponents have made their positions about market share and product stigmatization quite clear, and their lack of interest in proposing solutions that are more broadly appealing is I think ultimately what is jeopardizing their campaign’s success. While forcing the issue into the national debate by focusing on small states, this short-sightedness may result in no label at all.
What we need before any labeling law is implemented is to study the issue more deeply, including what the consumer acceptance and market impacts might be from different labeling proposals. Then if a proposal can be found that satisfies what the broadest coalition of people, companies, and other organizations are looking for, then it can be proposed, lobbied for, passed, and become policy. In my opinion, consumer (social) science can provide an answer to a hotly debated political question.
Since Pat Roberts’s bill has passed the Senate Agricultural committee, with 11 Republicans and 3 Democrats voting in favor, it will be introduced to the Senate. The urgency of finding a solution to this political issue was felt by the reports of the discussion that took place, and its quick approval in less than an hour. Organizations advocating for GMO labels are gearing up and raising money to lobby against it, as the July 1st deadline fast approaches. Many questions remain about the politics that lie ahead, especially how a contentious Presidential election may affect it.
While the politicos do their debating, perhaps we can tap into the creativity and scientific facts at our disposal and come up with our own ideas here. Who want’s to have a contest to design the best GMO label? It would be fascinating to see what this community can come up with.

USDA bioengineered
Mockup of USDA GMO label based on current food labels. Not so bad, eh?


  1. Interesting idea.
    I’m starting to think that they could also grandfather in the Vermont law. It’s so awful, it would actually be a terrific example of how *not* to label. And it might also lead to a way to look at choices and costs as a result. All of which I expect to firmly expose the label advocates for the cluelessness with which they crafted this terrible legislation–aided by Jeffrey Smith.

  2. As always stellar commentary.
    I still think mandating a label without adequate state interest in doing is going to lead to a show down in court like we saw with vermonts rBST labeling law in the 90’s and I oppose the attempt to coopt evidence based labeling reserved for material facts regarding composition/safety to satisfy consumer curiosity about plant breeding methods. But youre right there needs to be another way forward.
    A label such as the kind you suggest in the mock up is far less offending and more informative for consumer than any currently proposed by actual labeling advocates,
    Unfortunately many of the prolabeling groups will not compromise and they’ve told us that. For them a label already is a compromise since their true goal is elimination of GE crops from the market.

  3. I’d like to see the Vermont lawmakers having to live with their mistake, too, but I suspect the folks who would actually be punished are small, local food producers along with the Vermont citizenry.

  4. Yes, if a swatch of foods are no longer available in Vermont as of July 1st, the people who will be harmed are the economically disadvantaged. Their food choices and availability should not be curtailed.

  5. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
    I would tend to argue that USDA should not be in the marketing labeling business. I didn’t think they should have gotten involved in the Organic labeling and standards mess, either. Where I sit, USDA currently is underfunded in areas that would actually have some positive environmental impact, like NRCS.
    But, this bill could be somewhat of a coup for the anti-label interests. If the bill directs USDA to come up with a voluntary labeling standard, Congress could always kill that by failing to fund USDA to do so.
    One other thought comes to mind. If the whole labeling bugaboo gets settled, what are the rent-seeking groups like CFS, EWG, et al going to do to keep the donations coming in? More nuisance lawsuits against USDA, EPA and FDA? They have to keep those dollars rolling in to pay those fat salaries…

  6. Absolutely we should seek policies that wont harm the economically disadvantaged and while I’m always in favor of the high road wouldn’t the loss of those foods and the consequences be of vermonts own making? Maybe there could be a lesson in that for Vermont’s lawmakers and labeling advocates in general. Not that I want economically disadvantaged people in Vermont to suffer.
    Is the GMA seriously considering pulling its goods from Vermont if a federal solution isn’t found? I’ve joked about them doing that but I didn’t think it was actually on the table.

  7. “Maybe there could be a lesson in that for Vermont’s lawmakers and
    labeling advocates in general. Not that I want economically
    disadvantaged people in Vermont to suffer.”
    And therein lies the problem. The agricultural creationist idealogues have already showed they don’t care about anything other than their precious beliefs, everyone else be damned. Look at their opposition to Golden rice, cassava with improved nutrition, etc. It’s all about the ideology. So what if a few hundred or few thousand poor people in Vermont have to do without, in their pure minds.

  8. right, while I joke about it in actually I think the GMA pulling items from the shelves of Vermont is a terrible idea not only ethically but just imagewise. You want one way to make this a national crisis? Take away all the inexpensive food in Bernie Sanders home state in July during an election year. It’s like a perfect storm to make this politically charged issue even more prevalent. And to be honest if it comes down to a popularity contest I fear the science will lose.
    But like I said I didn’t think the nuclear option was on the table.
    It’s a more general problem when your dealing with fundamentalist beliefs. But you’re likely right, certain California yoga moms and Andrew Kimbrell would only see the pr value of a million twitter feeds exploding with the tales of “Monsanto starves Vermont poor ” . Many of these activists wouldn’t care if it happened, look at the nonsense over the banana research. People protesting feeding studies to determine if we can make bananas prevent blindness. How can you be against a solution to prevent the human misery of VAD?

  9. Yep.
    That whole banana protest thing at my alma mater really upsets me. There’s a particularly vile sociology PhD candidate (that got rebuffed for a faculty position at ISU and is teaching at some 2nd rate eastern Iowa college as an adjunct instructor) that was tweeting all kinds of hatefulness about biotech. I won’t name names, but I think both Karl and Anastasia had some brief encounters with her before being blocked on Twitter.
    Anyway, the people complaining about crop biotech have absolutely no idea about how much not-fun farming has been historically. Their middle-class privilege allows them to tweet hateful stuff, thanks to American Farmers that make sure the get to eat every day, no matter how vile they are.

  10. But it’s what labelers want. It’s in their list of demands. I say let them have it.

    While we welcome the opportunity to end the war against consumers’ right to know, it’s important that the following terms be met for any “deal” to be acceptable:
    1. Vermont’s GMO labeling law must be preserved as written with no federal preemption, changes, or delay.
    2. Any “summits” regarding GMO labeling should be attended by representatives from the 4 states that currently have GMO labeling laws: Alaska, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont.
    3. The meetings must be open to the public and/or broadcast live and recorded.
    4. Any federal GMO labeling law, rule, or policy MUST be mandatory–not voluntary.
    5. Any discussion about federal GMO labeling laws MUST address:
    A) Clearly worded, easy to read, on the package labeling of Genetically Engineered ingredients with the GE ingredients clearly identified on the label using the words “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering”.
    B) QR codes or other symbols designed to replace the listing of GE ingredients on the label are not acceptable.
    C) Rules for labeling GMO meats (i.e. GE salmon) must be drafted and implemented.
    D) A national mandatory labeling law to take effect by July 1, 2016.

    Yes, I wish labelers didn’t want to make the poor folks suffer. But that ship has sailed.

  11. You do know that the organic operations pay for USDA services via certification fees? USDA-AMS is in the marketing business, thus Agricultural Marketing Services. They also help conventional grain and livestock producers with data and marketing of products. USDA is underfunded because the Farm Bill is corrupted by massive subsidy programs that are not linked to good thinks – like NRCS that you mention – not because they manage the National Organic Program.

  12. Yup. The same folks that don’t have any qualms killing off diabetics for their GM free utopia.

  13. Hey, wanna open up a Tasty Kake, Drakes & Breakfast Cereal, etc depot on the NH side of the Connecticut River? We can call it, “We Got the Goods!” 🙂

  14. Nothing unethical about it. They voluntarily legislated this situation. They got all those organic choices & exemptions. No one will starve but they will chafe at the lack of choice and sudden increase in their food bills. A great many Vermonters do live within reasonable distance to the borders.
    I do wonder, though, speaking of ethics, if Peter Shumlin has a plan if this occurs, as part of his fiduciary duty to the people of Vermont.

  15. On the flip side the leaders at ISU seem to have functioning spines. The last I heard the test was going to be done in spite of the protests.

Comments are closed.