A divisive federal bill intended to standardize food labeling requirements for genetically modified organisms is one step closer to becoming law. With a 63-30 vote, the Senate authorized the “National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard,” an amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 that would require companies to indicate whether food contains GMOs on its packaging. The bill moves onto the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass as early as next week.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who began working on introducing federal legislation last summer, described last night’s development as “the most important vote for agriculture in the last 20 years.”
Previous versions of the bill called for labeling to be voluntary rather than mandatory, a provision cheered by food industry and biotechnology groups.
But with the July 1 implementation of a mandatory GMO labeling law in Vermont looming, lawmakers had to move quickly to strike a compromise on federal labeling legislation to override the Green Mountain State bill. That compromise—reached in late June by Roberts and ranking Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.—does require companies to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, but gives them several options. In addition to words or icons, companies can print a QR code on the package that consumers can scan for more information about the product. Smaller companies will also have the option of listing a phone number or URL instead.
“The biggest problem with the Senate bill is that—instead of requiring a simple label, as the Vermont law does—it would allow food companies to put the information in electronic codes that consumers would have to scan with smartphones or at scanners installed by grocery stores,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial Thursday, echoing the concerns expressed by many organic and anti-GMO groups. “The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public."
If passed by the House and signed by the president, the law would nullify Vermont’s GMO labeling law and prevent other states from passing their own. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, both democrats from Vermont and opponents of the Roberts-Stabenow bill, delayed a vote on the Senate floor until just after 11 a.m. but were unsuccessful in stopping it altogether. Once a vote was taken and the bill passed, however, food industry groups immediately cheered.
“Tonight's vote in the Senate has been a long time in the making,” president of the American Soybean Association Richard Wilkins told POLITICO. “We believe that the bill ... provides consumers the information they need without stigmatizing a safe and sustainable food technology, and we encourage the House to move quickly to approve this carefully crafted compromise. There is too much at stake in the marketplace to let the consequences of the Vermont law linger any longer.”
According to the Center for Food Safety, up to 94 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
Other opponents of the bill passed Thursday say it gives the United States Department of Agriculture too much power in determining which foods are bioengineered, and which are not—a provision that could create “loopholes” to leave many GE foods unlabeled and undermine the law altogether.
“In particular, the USDA may define—potentially too narrowly—the types of biotechnologies that will be subject to the labeling requirement,” wrote Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which opposed the national law. “The USDA will also establish the threshold amount of GMO-derived ingredients that will mandate labeling. The department is also given discretion to determine how to hold companies accountable if they fail to label.”
Cook did say that thanks to the efforts of Stabenow and various organic groups, some of the most concerning sections in past versions of the bill—such as uncertainty around how the bill would impact the National Organic Program—were addressed and removed.
“As the bill is likely to become the law of the land, EWG will work tirelessly during implementation to ensure that clear, straightforward, on-package labeling will quickly inform concerned consumers if food has been genetically engineered—and not be undermined by loopholes.”
Illustration by Karley Koenig