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Smithsonian: 5 Things to Know About New GMO Labeling Bill

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On July 14, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring large food companies to label products containing genetically modified organisms—plants and animals that have had a gene from another organism inserted into their genetic code, writes Jason Daley with Smithsonian.com.

The bill is now headed to President Obama, who is expected to sign.

But the new law is not as straightforward as it sounds. Unlike the European Union, where strict regulations require food products to note whether any ingredient or part of the process producing it involved genetically modified organisms, the new U.S. law has some wiggle room, and not all of the details have been hashed out yet.

Still, the bill represents a compromise that many environmental groups and agribusinesses never thought would happen. Yet both GMO supporters and anti-GMO activists are lukewarm about the final product. “I don’t think that it’s the best bill that we could have, but it’s the best bill we could pass,” Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, which opposes GMO labeling, tells Dan Charles at NPR.

The pro-labeling groups are also not entirely satisfied. Scott Faber, executive director of the Organic Voices Action Fund, which runs the The Just Label It campaign, tells Charles that his group officially opposes the bill because they believe it’s too weak. But he’s still impressed that it made it through Congress. “It’s not an insignificant achievement that a Republican Congress has decided to mandate a national GMO disclosure on every food package that contains genetically engineered ingredients,” he says.

So what exactly is and isn’t in the bill? Here’s a breakdown.

QR Codes, Not Labels

According to the bill, the new labels can include a “text, symbol, or electronic or digital link” which discloses the use of GMOs. It’s a loophole that would allow food manufacturers to put an obscure symbol and Quick Response Code (QR) on their packaging instead of spelling out the fact that it is a GMO product.

Critics argue that consumers will ignore the codes and that populations without smart phones or internet connections will not have access to the information. Jesse Jackson even sent a letter asking President Obama to veto the bill, arguing that it’s discriminatory. Critics also argue that the once-ubiquitous QR codes have already fallen out of fashion. “We don’t think the Q.R. code is a viable or even an honest disclosure,” Gary Hirshberg co-founder of Stonyfield Farms tells Stephanie Strom at The New York Times. “It’s just another way of keeping citizens in the dark—every 13-year-old knows Q.R. codes are dead.”

But Sarah Zhang at Wired sees it differently. She argues that the QR code would link to a website that could lead to a deeper, more nuanced discussion of GMOs.

Head over to Smithsonian.com to read the rest of Daley’s article on the new federal GMO Labeling standard.

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