Anti-GMO activists are seething at President Obama’s quiet signature last week of a bill governing labeling of genetically modified foods, saying he was “cowardly” for approving it as the country’s attention was still focused on the Democratic convention.
Mr. Obama inked some 20 bills Friday, in a late-July signing spree, but the GMO legislation was the most controversial, as it overturns Vermont’s labeling law and requires the federal government to set up its own standards for when a good must be labeled as bioengineered.
Opponents of the federal legislation had even filed a petition with the White House urging a veto, and had the 100,000 signatures required to earn an official response — though the White House waited until after the president signed the bill to post the response.
“It was cowardly of President Obama to wait until the Friday after the convention to sign the bill,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association. “I foolishly believed he might honor his 2007 pledge to respect our right to know what we’re eating. The WhiteHouse.gov petition hit the 100,000 signatures target with several days left in the veto window and he just ignored it.”
The GMO bill sparked major protests, including at the White House and the Senate, where during the debate Ms. Baden-Mayer and several confederates dropped money onto the chamber floor, symbolizing what they said was the cash that major agribusiness corporations had splashed around to sway senators’ votes.
About half the Senate Democratic Caucus voted against the measure, as did nearly half of House Democrats, in each case joined by a small minority of the GOP. But the bill likely had veto-proof support.
Critics said the bill would make it tougher to find out about GMO ingredients in food by allowing companies to hide the information behind a bar code. Consumers would have to scan the bar code and check online to see whether modified products were used.
Critics also said the bill uses definitions that would shield high-fructose corn syrup made from GMO corn, or soybean oil made from GMO soybeans, from having to be labeled.
They dubbed the bill the “DARK Act,” for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.”
In their petition, the anti-GMO activists said Mr. Obama risked breaking a 2007 campaign promise: “We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified because Americans should know what they’re buying.”
After Mr. Obama signed the bill, the White House officially responded to the petition, but didn’t address any of the critics’ concerns, instead deferring to the “bipartisan effort” in Congress to pass the legislation.
The White House also asked for GMO critics to remain engaged as the Agriculture Department writes the rules going forward.
“Your voice and input will be important throughout the implementation process of this legislation and in helping design the best disclosure program possible,” the White House said in the unsigned response.
The most immediate effect of the new rules would be to squelch an effort by Vermont, whose labeling law went into effect July 1. While the Agriculture Department has two years to write new rules for national labeling, state laws are pre-empted immediately.
Ms. Baden-Mayer said opponents will keep trying to block the law. She said they’ll seek to overturn it in the courts, press Congress to repeal it, and fight to stop the administration from writing regulations to carry it out.
“No GMO labels are better than the very confusing and narrowly-drawn definition of ‘bioengineered’ in the DARK Act,” she said. “It is so riddled with exemptions, that, if the DARK act were implemented, I don’t think any of the foods currently being labeled by Vermont would be labeled.”