Partly to head off a potential patchwork of genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling laws from states, the U.S. Senate on July 7 voted 63-30 for a bill that would require GMO contents in foods to be displayed on applicable packaging using words, a website or phone number, or a Quick Response barcode that can be read by a smartphone. The U.S. House of Representatives concurred in bipartisan vote of 306-117 on July 14. The bill now goes to President Obama.
A federal bill could cause a food fight with states, as the bill as it stands now would preempt state GMO labeling laws. It also would give the USDA two years to devise rules telling companies how to label GMO ingredients.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did not vote for the Senate bill. Vermont’s own mandatory GMO labeling law went into effect July 1.
“It is not the business of Congress to overstep what the states have done,” Sen. Sanders said in a Fortune magazine article.
Connecticut was the first state with a GMO labeling law in 2013, and it included a trigger clause requiring four other states, one adjacent to its borders, to enact similar legislation. Maine signed a GMO labeling law in early January 2014, but it will only become effective if four contiguous states enact similar laws, which has yet to happen. New Hampshire and Massachusetts are considering such laws. Alaska has a law to label genetically modified salmon.
Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King initially supported moving the Senate bill ahead in a procedural vote on July 1, but the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association and other groups criticized their votes, saying the federal GMO bill is weaker than laws approved by Maine’s and other state’s legislatures. In the final vote on July 7, both senators changed their vote to “nay.”
Clarity or Confusion?
Most corn, soybean, and sugar crops grown in the U.S. are from genetically-engineered seeds, according to USDA, Center for Food Safety, and other sources. But the U.S. Senate bill may not consider such items bioengineered foods when used as food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil. GMO corn also may be exempt because of vague language, critics say.
For example, the Senate bill says food that require labeling must contain genetic material modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques, meaning they would be modified in a way that can’t be replicated through typical breeding methods. The U.S. FDA has said that language will exempt foods containing oils and sugars which, when processed, no longer contain a genetic trace of the GMO crops from which they came.
Reasons for labeling vary, but a consensus is that people simply want to know what is in their food. This is true with calorie and nutrient counts, as well as GMOs, which scientists in general have deemed safe to eat, but which some consumers still are wary about eating. Organic companies cannot by law use GMOs in their foods.
It will cost money to change labeling, some manufacturers argue. Plus there are some surveys that indicate a GMO label may cause consumers to avoid buying a product.
A June 13–21 online survey of 1,665 primary shoppers by MSR Group and sponsored by the American Soybean Association (ASA) and other U.S. food and agriculture trade associations aimed to understand five common on-pack food labels. When consumers were asked about the GMO statements required by Vermont’s labeling law, 73 percent of respondents said they were less likely to buy foods with on-pack GMO disclosures. Some 36 percent perceived the food as less safe, 28 percent less healthful, 22 percent less nutritious, and 20 percent worse for the environment.
Vermont’s labeling law simply says, “partially produced with genetic engineering.”
The ASA and its partner associations issued a joint statement saying: “The survey demonstrates that the Vermont on-pack GMO labeling law that is effectively setting GMO labeling policy for interstate commerce is misleading to consumers and powerfully disparaging of a safe, environmentally appropriate technology.” It went on to say that the Senate bill would preempt the Vermont law and permit GMO disclosure that was not misleading.
Meanwhile, Pamela Bailey, president and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association, in supporting the Senate’s bill, said in a statement: “…consumers and small businesses in the state [Vermont] are already facing fewer products on the shelves and higher costs of compliance on small businesses.”
Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach, sent a letter to all members of the U.S. Senate in late June to carefully consider the implications of the bill on organic agriculture. “The bill was ostensibly about labeling, but it has become a vehicle for a broader attack on organic agriculture,” it read in part.
The fight over GMO labeling has been contentious and costly. For example, food and biotechnology companies spent about $101 million to oppose it in 2015, according to the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that cited Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz Co., Kellogg’s, Land O’Lakes, and General Mills as spending a combined $20.6 million to lobby against GMO labeling.