As promised, President Obama has signed Congress’s bill into law requiring the country’s first labels on foods that have genetically modified ingredients. Companies will now have to indicate products that contain GMOs with either a text label, a universal logo of some as-yet-undetermined design, or a third option that includes adding a 1-800 number or QR code that requires a smartphone to read. It gives the USDA two years to hammer down the specific rules, which will override the ones Vermont just enacted, of which many of the biggest food companies have already reluctantly complied.
The bill itself was controversial, and passage came despite loud objections from members of Congress like Bernie Sanders and (somewhat ironically) label advocates themselves, who argue the rules are full of too many loopholes, the penalties for not complying are too lax, and the QR-code option is too easy of an out. Critics believe that if given those three label choices, companies will pick the one involving a bar code that resembles a printing glitch and requires an expensive cell phone to access. (Vermont’s law forced companies to put “Produced with genetic engineering” on packaging, then permitted QR codes as a way of providing additional information.) The fight leading up to the bill’s passage got acrimonious enough that organic-food producers even turned on their own, slamming pro-label members of their own group. The Organic Consumers Association, for instance, started circulating an image of Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb and Stonyfield founder Gary Hirshberg that called them “traitors” and showed QR codes stamped on their foreheads, Mark of the Beast–style.
There’s no indication foods with GMOs are necessarily dangerous, but groups that want labels argue it’s still the public’s right to know when products contain them. They claim this national labeling standard won’t do a whole lot to change that.