What Is the “DARK” Act?

Your guide to the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, and what it means for GMO labeling in the U.S.

CC BY 2.0. Selma Broeder

Update: Public Law 114-216, AKA the DARK Act, was enacted on July 29, 2016 when President Obama signed then Senate Bill 764 (S.764).

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 is a proposal to create a national standard regarding the labeling of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives. If passed, the bill would override state laws that require foods containing GMO ingredients to be labeled. Today, that legislation passed from subcommittee, and is expected to be debated and voted on by the House in the next couple of weeks.

Opponents of the bill regard it as a step backward for food transparency and have nicknamed it the “DARK" act—which stands for Deny Americans the Right to Know.

Currently, food manufacturers in the U.S. do not have to label foods containing GMOs. However, a number of states have considered implementing labeling. Few of these initiatives have passed, but processed food makers have spent millions fighting the proposed labels. Thus far, only Vermont has passed a bill that will unconditionally require labeling, while Maine and Connecticut have passed conditional laws that would go into effect if neighboring states enact similar laws.

But food manufacturers say that state-by-state differences in labeling requirements could be costly, and have been working to overturn labeling laws at the federal level since at least 2013. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 is part of that effort.

The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for evaluating the safety of biotech crops, has deemed many genetically engineered crops safe to eat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, as is some 89 percent of corn. The Food and Drug Administration continues to add new varieties of genetically modified crops to the approved list each year. It’s safe to say that all Americans are eating GMOs unless they’re actively working to avoid them by purchasing only organic food or food that has been non-GMO certified.

GMOs have become a particularly divisive issue in the discussions about the American diet, as the two names for the bill illustrate. A number of studies have also shown no negative health consequences associated with consuming GMOs compared with non-GMO crops. However, genetically engineered foods have only existed for about 40 years, and have only been part of the food supply since the 1990s. For some anti-GMO advocates, there’s just not enough evidence to show if GMOs are good or bad. For GMO proponents, such arguments are fear-mongering.

There are other environmental consequences to the rapid adoption of GMO crops, such as an increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides, which may have wider-reaching consequences for ecosystems. But not all GMO crops are modified to have the same traits—like pesticide resistance. Some might be modified in such a way that they could produce more food while using fewer natural resources. So the question of whether or not GMOs are good or bad for the environment depends in part on which crop and what traits are being considered, not the category of “genetic engineering” as a whole.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act/Deny Americans the Right to Know doesn’t just prohibit mandatory GMO labeling laws. Colin O’Neil, Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Food Safety, said the bill also prevents states from regulating genetically modified crops, including measures that are designed to protect communities from exposure to pesticides. He said the bill could also weaken the FDA’s regulatory framework.

Public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans support GMO labeling. An Associated Press/GfK poll conducted last year found that 66 percent of those polled supported mandatory labeling, while just 7 percent object to it. Congresswomen Chellie Pingree of Maine said that concerns about GMO labeling are the most common type of email she receives from her constituents.

Scott Faber, Senior VP of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group and Executive Director of Just Label It, said that no one is surprised that the House Agriculture committee has landed on the anti-labeling side of the debate. If the House passes the bill, which seems likely, it will still need to find support in the Senate before it becomes law. “The real fight will be in the senate,” said Faber.