In 2014, lawmakers in Vermont passed a bill requiring food companies to label packages containing genetically modified ingredients.
As the first of its kind, the bill wasn't perfect -- some foods were exempt, and language in the bill made it possible for food companies to circumvent the new labeling requirements if, for example, a product contained genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and real meat.
But Vermont was the first state to take a major step toward labeling genetically modified food, and it's clear Americans want the labels -- polls by the Mellman Group, Thomson-Reuters, ABC News and the Washington Post have consistently found that nine in 10 Americans want to know if GMOs are in the food they're buying.
It's a rare issue in which Americans of all political stripes are in agreement -- regardless of whether the people polled identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans or independents.
Arguing that a federal law could seal the loopholes in Vermont's GMO labeling law -- and establish a national standard -- two high-ranking members of the Senate's Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee introduced a bill that would codify labeling for products in all 50 states.
The new law, passed by the Senate on July 7, "prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who sits on the agriculture committee.
Stabenow was joined by Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
On paper, it seems like a great deal and a win for consumers -- an example of bipartisan cooperation that aims to set a national standard for food labeling, avoiding the potential confusion of different labels on groceries in different states. A laudable goal.
Both Stabenow and Roberts are owned by food and biotech industry giants like Monsanto, companies that spent more than $100 million in 2015 alone to oppose GMO labels, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. Those companies are major campaign contributors to Stabenow and Roberts.
Doing the bidding of their corporate masters, Stabenow and Roberts engineered the Senate bill so food and biotech companies don't actually have to label products containing GMO. They can voluntarily label food packages, but they can also choose to hide the information in QR codes: those black-and-white, pixelated boxes people can scan with their smartphones. If a company chooses to use a QR code, there is no requirement to put anything else on the label indicating the product contains GMOs.
There's even a third option, perhaps even more obtuse, for "small" food and biotech companies -- they simply have to mark food packages with their website URLs, and as long as their websites include information about whether specific products contain GMOs, they're technically complying with the labeling law.
"The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public," The New York Times editorial board wrote.
The food companies know busy shoppers are far less likely to scan QR codes or punch in food company URLs while standing in the middle of a grocery aisle. The bill calls for labeling in name only, but doesn't actually make it easier for Americans to determine if the food they're buying contains GMOs -- it actually makes it more difficult.
Stabenow voted against a more complete GMO labeling bill in March, Politico noted, immediately after augmenting her campaign coffers at a fundraiser by organic food industry executives. After the July 6 vote, she spoke about her weak and confusing GMO-labeling bill as if it was a victory for Americans.
“This bipartisan bill is a win for consumers and families,” Stabenow said, according to Consumer Affairs. “For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.”
Serendipitously, Roberts, Stabenow and the 63 senators who voted with them provided the perfect example of politicians siding with major donors instead of voters, just as Gallup released a new poll that found Americans believe their representatives do exactly that.
In the Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents said major donors have "a lot" of influence over politicians, while only 14 percent said constituents do. According to the Americans polled, it's not just the donors -- lobbyists and party leaders also have more sway over lawmakers than the people who actually vote them into office. It's no surprise then that the senators who voted for Stabenow and Roberts' flawed labeling bill received twice as much money from the agriculture lobby as the senators who voted against it, according to EcoWatch.
Americans want labels. That much is clear. And they don't want obtuse packaging that hides GMO and nutrition information behind cryptic machine codes and URLs.
As The New York Times notes in a severe understatement, the Senate bill "needs more work." It also needs to be reconciled with a House version of a GMO labeling law, which means lawmakers will spend quite a bit of time hashing out details and making compromises.
While they do, it's on the American people to remind those lawmakers who they work for. While money is a big incentive for them to side with corporations instead of the people, votes are ultimately what keep them in power -- or send them packing.