An Open Letter to JLI Partners and Supporters
Re: The Next Steps in the Fight for Simple At-A-Glance GMO Transparency
Since the passage of the Roberts-Stabenow compromise GMO labeling bill (S.764) in July, Just Label It (JLI) and our leadership have been the subject of post-mortem criticism by several activist groups apparently trying to place blame for the bill’s passage. The charges have ranged from the absurd and evidence-free assertion that we supported passage of this bill to the accusation that we operated secretly and without adequately communicating to them. Although we have never been asked to respond to these charges, nine groups have requested that we take them off the list of our 745 organizational partners, which we of course have done.
There is of course no evidence to substantiate these claims. Naturally, we share their disappointment that this bill passed, and can only speculate as to their motivations for criticizing us. With so much important work still needed to ensure that the new law delivers the best possible outcome for true GMO transparency, we cannot be troubled to respond to unsubstantiated rumors and accusations. But since they are out there, we thought it best if we laid out the facts and set the record straight so that we can put this unfortunate chapter behind us and focus on the critical work ahead.
No organization worked harder to defeat the DARK ACT and Roberts-Stabenow compromise than Just Label It. Over the course of the last few years, JLI:
- Generated more than 1.7 million emails to legislators to oppose the DARK Act
- Persuaded millions of Americans to sign petitions in support of GMO labeling
- Generated nearly 20,000 phone calls to legislators to oppose the DARK Act
- Convened more than 1,000 meetings with legislators and staff to oppose the DARK Act
- Convened more than 25 briefings for legislators and staff
- Organized many lobby days for farmers, food industry leaders, chefs, and celebrities to oppose the DARK Act and compromise bill
- Commissioned two polls by the Mellman Group, including one poll on QR codes
- Engaged state-based consultants to link activists with key legislators to oppose the DARK Act
- Launched a $1 million “conceal or reveal” corporate pressure campaign to urge companies to reject the QR scanner gimmick (which continues today)
- Launched several videos demanding mandatory GMO labeling and to oppose the DARK Act
- Commissioned an expert study on the problems with QR codes
- Documented the links between GMOs and rising glyphosate use through reports and maps
- Issued reports debunking industry arguments related to food security and GMOs
- Issued reports debunking industry arguments related to the environment and GMOs
- Issued reports debunking industry arguments linking food prices and GMO labels.
- Generated thousands of articles and editorials in support of mandatory GMO labeling and in opposition to the DARK Act.
Naturally, we’re as disappointed that the new GMO labeling law allows companies to rely on QR codes and leaves important decisions in the hands of USDA. But, allegations being made by some that JLI did not collaborate with other groups are just plain wrong.
For several years before the December and March victories to fend off passage of the DARK Act in the Senate, we had engaged in a strategy that involved hundreds of private meetings with Congressional, Senate and Administration leaders. We invited numerous other pro-labeling allies to join us for many of these meetings, including numerous high-profile “fly-ins” of farmers, chefs, organic food company leaders and activists. Several prominent critics who now suggest our Washington efforts were not transparent were not only informed about them in real time, but actually participated. JLI’s approach from the start has always and transparently included a concerted strategy to build strong relationships with congressional and administration officials aimed at securing mandatory federal labeling as strong as Vermont’s law.
On countless occasions and in numerous emails we have given credit to many of our fellow pro-labeling advocates for efforts that were vital to the December 2015 and March 2016 victories to turn back the Senate version of the DARK Act. But, as we continually warned, the defeat of the DARK Act did not equate to Senate acceptance of our point of view. It also did not equate to Senate acquiescence to Vermont’s 2014 law becoming the law of the land. Indeed, many legislators told us, as they told others, that their vote against the DARK Act should not be interpreted as support for mandatory GMO labeling on the package.
The insights and relationships we had achieved through these meetings with legislators and their staff made clear that we would eventually face a compromise bill. We repeatedly warned our colleagues in numerous emails that a compromise would be drafted to attract sufficient Democratic votes to pass. On several occasions, when I communicated this prospect and outlined our strategy to fight any bill that undermined our agenda to secure mandatory on package at-a-glance labeling, I was chided as defeatist for predicting that a compromise would emerge. If only I had been wrong.
The most unfortunate aspect of this concerted attempt by fellow pro-labeling advocates to invest energy and effort criticizing JLI’s work is that there remains so much more important work to be done in this fight. It is one thing to point to the many flaws in the compromise, as we have done. It is another thing altogether to declare publicly, as some of our critics have, that nothing is at stake in the implementation phase because all of the important issues were decided, finally and unambiguously in industry’s favor.
JLI’s view is distinctly different. This battle is far from over. There is much important work to be done to keep pressure on the USDA, large food companies and retailers to ensure that the greatest possible degree of GMO transparency is achieved through the new rules and that companies will think twice before resorting to QR codes. That’s where we are focused. And we are already taking steps to persuade the Administration and the food industry to provide a simple, factual disclosure on the package.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture begins its process to implement the mandatory GMO labeling law, it will be imperative that USDA meet the intent of Congress to give consumers a simple disclosure.
In particular, it was Congress’s clear intent that the mandatory labeling program created by S.764 include all food ingredients derived from genetic engineering, including oils and sugars, as well as ingredients derived from newer genetic engineering techniques. To comply with the new law, USDA’s new labeling requirements must cover all GMO techniques and be consistent with the definitions established by many of our largest trading partners – including a 0.9 percent threshold for non-GMO material.
We will do everything we can to discourage the use of QR codes. But, to meet the intent of the new law, USDA must ensure that any QR codes designed to comply with the new law be large enough to work consistently. Furthermore, the law clearly directs USDA to require that the GMO disclosure must be the first thing one sees on the product information page after scanning a digital disclosure. This disclosure on the product information page should be an ingredient-by-ingredient presence claim – the same disclosure required by many of our trading partners. The law also clearly directs USDA to require that any QR code must be accompanied a toll-free phone number. When consumers call that number, they should be able to get the same ingredient-by-ingredient information.
What about consumers without smartphones? Following completion of a one-year study, USDA will have to provide “comparable” options for people without smartphones – that is, an option just as convenient as it is for someone to pull out their phone and scan a product. Consumers shouldn’t have to walk all the way across the store to scan a product or do a web search.
JLI will also do everything we can to ensure timely implementation of the new law. Congress gave USDA two years to get the job done. Many large food companies already began labeling their GMO products to comply with Vermont’s mandatory labeling law. Congress took that information away from consumers when it preempted state labeling requirements and consumers should not have to wait more than two years to be able to get that information again.
In conclusion, Just Label It is very proud of our efforts to fight for mandatory at-a-glance GMO labeling, but the battle is far from over. For JLI, that means trying to ensure that these issues (and others) and thoughtfully addressed by USDA and that means keeping the pressure on food companies to give consumers the basic information about our foods that we all want and deserve.
Gary Hirshberg, Chairman