Photo courtesy of Bea González
Virginia restaurateurs, food scientists, small-business owners and farmers standing proud outside of Sen. Warner's office yesterday while petitioning federal GMO labeling.
It wasn't a march on Washington, but a handful of Richmond restaurateurs and small-business owners joined a group of Virginia farmers and food scientists in Washington, D.C., yesterday to discuss the future of food labeling with U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Virginia Democrats.
"I was kind of shocked that they would make time for us," says chef and restaurateur Joe Sparatta of Heritage and Southbound, adding, "it was neat being a fly on the wall. We had some input and they were very receptive to what we were saying."
He and chefs Jason Alley (of Pasture and Comfort) and Lee Gregory (of The Roosevelt and Southbound), as well as Rick Hood (of Ellwood Thompson's Local Market) and Shane Emmett (of Health Warrior) traveled to the nation's capital to discuss H.R. 1599, or the Safety and Food Labeling Act of 2015. Referred to by opponents as the "Denying Americans the Right-to-Know Act" or "DARK Act," the bill — which passed the House of Representatives in late July — allows food companies to continue selling products without labeling the inclusion of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. It also prohibits companies from marketing non-GMO products as being healthier than those that include GMOs, and inhibits states from enacting their own GMO labeling laws.
In an effort to combat the bill, which will at some point be introduced in the Senate, the anti-H.R. 1599 organization Just Label It contacted a number of Virginia businesses, farmers and restaurateurs and scheduled hourlong discussions with both Warner and Kaine.
"It seemed to me it was more a fact-finding mission for the senators. They had a lot of questions and they're trying to figure out exactly what it could mean. The only thing we really had to offer was us being able to inform our consumers," says Sparatta. He adds, "This bill could be a huge hindrance to food labeling in general, if it was to go through. This whole DARK Act thing is a little bit scary. It's not really for or against GMO foods; they're trying to continue to be a part of the conversation. It's more about just knowing what's in your food."
Beginning with Kaine, the group shared a number of perspectives and addressed what GMO labeling would mean for each of their organizations, and for guests and consumers. From the restaurateurs' perspective, it was clear that notifying guests and being able to provide them with specific information about their meals was incredibly important. Also discussed were the costs of creating new labeling with GMO information, both for small businesses and large corporations; a sizable argument for the bill comes from large corporations, which state that creating new labels would be an inconvenient and even crippling financial burden. However, according to Just Label It, these companies create new labels regularly for marketing purposes, so the point is relatively moot. On a smaller scale, Lumi Organics' Hillary Lewis weighed the pros and cons of a new labeling system. According to Sparatta, both senators listened and responded to the group's concerns in an effort to better understand a local context for national legislation.
"As a Richmond resident, I have frequented many of the restaurants and farms whose proprietors came in to meet this week, and it was valuable to listen to their views," Kaine says in an email. "Those visiting my office made a strong case for why Congress should not make it harder for consumers to be informed about what is in the food that they eat. While it is unclear when legislation on this topic will come before the Senate, it was good to hear this perspective."
Autumn Olive Farms' Clay Trainum was also present, as were the Virginia Association of Biological Farming's Sue Ellen Johnson, Abingdon Organics' Anthony Flaccavento, the National Black Farmers Association's John Boyd, the Environmental Working Group's Scott Farber, and Stonyfield Organic's Gary Hirshberg, out of New Hampshire.
"Ultimately, I think everybody kind of agreed that there should be some transparency here," says Sparatta. "It doesn't need to be a fact that's hidden. There's not really enough data out there to show if GMOs are actually harmful, but in 20 years there could be, so getting ahead of the game would probably be in the state's best interest, if not the country's."
Vermont, Connecticut and Maine already have passed statewide GMO labeling laws, and according to the Center for Food Safety, 64 countries already require GMO labeling regulation.
"There's always going to be GMO and that's not the issue," says Sparatta. "I think the issue is just allowing transparency for the American public and that's what this was really about. GMOs will always be here and they're not all bad, but I think all of us have the right to know what we're eating. That's what it comes down to."
If you, too, would like to weigh in on the Safety and Food Labeling Act of 2015, contact Warner at 202-224-2023 and Kaine at 202-224-4024.