The Senate on Thursday reached a compromise regarding labels for food that contains genetically modified ingredients, pre-empting the possibility of a patchwork of complicated and potentially conflicting state laws.

“Unless we act now, Vermont law denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace is the law of the land,” Senator Pat Roberts (R- Kansas), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement. “Our marketplace--both consumers and producers--needs a national biotechnology standard to avoid chaos in interstate commerce.” 

The Vermont law takes effect July 1, which has been a looming deadline for months for food manufacturers and lawmakers. While this Senate proposal won’t become legislation by that time, it effectively prevents other states from following Vermont’s lead by banning future state GMO labelling laws.

What is the timeline for this bill? According to Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics and Washington consultant for Pro Farmer, the Senate is likely to vote on the bill next week and send it to the House of Representatives in early July. “Will the House go along? It’s murky,” Weisemeyer said, noting how the House presented its own GMO labeling bill a year ago.  If the House wants something significantly different from the Senate, time could get tight. The House is scheduled to go on recess in mid-July due to the party conventions in advance of the August recess.

Looking beyond Capitol Hill, Wiesemeyer thinks the bill has a good chance of being approved by the White House and supported by USDA, thanks to the involvement of Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan).

New Requirements

As many consumer groups advocated, the proposed Senate bill would require food manufacturers to say if a food contains genetically modified ingredients. However, consumers who are concerned about GMOs may have to do some extra sleuthing when they read a product’s label, which can disclose the GM foods through text, a symbol, website link or QR code.

There are a few exceptions to the labeling proposal. Foods that consist primarily of beef, poultry, pork or eggs would not be required to have a GM label, even if they ate GM corn or soybeans. “The legislation prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten bioengineered feed,” the Senate statement noted.

The bill also does not apply to foods created with emerging gene editing technologies like CRISPR, but rather focuses on foods that have been developed through conventional recombinant DNA techniques.

Some food companies will also catch a break, with small manufacturers being allowed to fulfill the disclosure requirement with a phone number or website link and “very small” food companies being exempt entirely. How small is “small” and “very small”? That will be determined by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which will also be in charge of writing the GMO disclosure rule.

Farm Group Reaction

Farm groups had a mixed reaction to the Senate proposal. While many ag groups have been worried about the impact of the Vermont law—and the potential chaos of other states following suit with food labeling laws of their own—not everyone was thrilled by the mandatory aspects of the bill.

“We appreciate Chairman Roberts' diligence in taking action prior to the Vermont law's going into effect, This deal clearly seeks to prevent a 50-state mismatched quilt of differing labeling standards,” the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement. “But the mandatory feature holds significant potential to contribute to confusion and unnecessary alarm. Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe a national, voluntary standard remains the best approach.

The American Soybean Association, however, is just happy to be moving forward at last.

“This package has been a long time in coming, and we’re happy to see it introduced today,” said American Soybean Association First Vice President Ron Moore, a soybean farmer from Roseville, Ill. “Soybean farmers absolutely support this bill and we call on the Senate to pass it as soon as possible.”

What do you think of the proposal? Do you agree with the labeling approach? The exemption for meat and eggs? Let us know in the comment