Dems call in celebrity reinforcements to fight GMO bill

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2015 -- Hollywood royalty in the personae of actresses Blythe Danner and daughter Gwyneth Paltrow came to Capitol Hill Wednesday to support legislation offered by Senate Democrats that would require labeling of foods containing genetically-modified ingredients. They also hope to fight any momentum that may be building from a recently approved House bill that would preempt a patchwork of state-by-state efforts mandating such labels.

The House bill, The Safe and Affordable Food Act, (H.R. 1599), was approved by a healthy 275-150 margin, with the support of 45 Democrats.

“We're recruiting celebrities because we're being outspent (by the anti-GMO labeling lobby) 25 to 1,” asserted Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Just Label It (JLI), an advocacy group for GMO labeling and the head of Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt company. Stonyfield operates as a subsidiary of Groupe Danone, a multinational food products company based in France, whose brands include Evian bottled water and Dannon yogurt.

Lets Talk Food

And the message, from congressional Democrats and their Hollywood allies is a simple one, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told the small crowd gathered for the event.

“Americans have the right to know what's in the food they eat.”

The Genetically Engineered Right to Know Act (S 809) is the bill Sen. Boxer and others are offering to counter the House's bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), which the Democrats have been calling the “DARK Act,” for “Denying Americans the Right to Know.” The Senate bill would require that companies label food products made with genetically modified organisms, under the guidance of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The House bill would do almost the opposite by prohibiting states from mandating that companies label GMOs, and instead setting up a voluntary labeling program where companies can certify their products through USDA.

“The folks that voted for this (House) bill are the same folks who talk about the supremacy of the states' rights, but it seems like states' rights don't count when it comes to giving breaks to big corporations,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Speaking of the anti-GMO labeling campaign, Tester, an organic farmer and a strong proponent of the organic industry, said “there's a train coming down the tracks in our food industry that is going to change agriculture forever… and it's not going to change things in a good way.”

Scott Faber, Just Label It's executive director and a vice president with the Environmental Working Group, said the House bill was anti-competitive and a roadblock to innovation.

“Organic and non-GMO are the fastest growing segments out there with double-digit growth and to deny Americans that choice is to effectively deny the marketplace of growth that we need in the future.”

Currently, Faber said, there are 64 countries that require GMO labeling, and while the United States requires non-nutritional labeling for “dolphin-free” tuna or “from concentrate” on orange juice cartons, there is no mandatory, non-nutritional label for GMOs.

“We shouldn't even be having to fight this DARK Act,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. In his home state of Vermont, companies will be required to label GM food products next year if a federal bill isn't passed in the interim and if the state law calling for such labels survives legal challenges.

“What is so frightening about allowing consumers to know what they're buying and feeding their families?” Leahy asked. He said that when Vermont residents were asked the same question, they said “it has to be our choice, not some company hiding what they're doing.”

Paltrow said that while, she's “not here as an expert” on GMOs, she is a mother with “a right to know what's in the food that I feed my family.” According to a recent poll conducted by JLI, many Americans - more than 88 percent of those surveyed - want to know too.

Danner got teary-eyed as she addressed the audience, reflecting on the JLI campaign that recently delivered a petition asking for labeling to the FDA with 1.4 million signatures. Another JLI petition against the House bill featuring a photo of Paltrow has attracted more than 200,000 signatures in the past six days.

The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, most national and state commodity groups, as well as major companies such as Monsanto and DuPont, dismissed the appeal by Hollywood.

Spokeswoman Claire Parker said the actresses were “out of touch” and their advocacy was an attempt to “enshrine their lifestyle choices into law while ignoring the everyday realities facing American families.”

“We are confident the Senate will stand with science and American families rather than the extreme agendas of Hollywood elites and that common sense and scientific consensus will win out over media spectacle,” Parker said in a statement.

In a letter to lawmakers last month, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said that state GMO labeling requirements “would cost food and beverage manufacturers millions of dollars given the changes to food labels and supply chain systems that would have to be made as a result.”  

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