The top lawmakers on the Senate Agriculture Committee reached an agreement Thursday on mandatory nationwide labeling for genetically modified foods.
The compromise bill, crafted by the panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, and its senior Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would pre-empt state laws and establish a nationwide standard.
“This bipartisan bill is a win for consumers and families,” Stabenow said in a statement. “For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.”
However, food manufacturers would have wide discretion under the new law to comply, and the now-familiar terms “GMO,” “genetically modified” or “biotechnology” aren’t guaranteed to appear. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will determine what words can be used.
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Instead, consumers are more likely to see a symbol, to be determined by the USDA, or a QR code, which would require consumers to scan the packages with smartphones to get more information.
The bill aims to eliminate a patchwork of state laws, including a Vermont law taking effect July 1 that exempts tens of thousands of food products from labeling requirements but that food industry groups, and Roberts, opposed.
“Our marketplace — both consumers and producers — needs a national biotechnology standard to avoid chaos in interstate commerce,” Roberts said in a statement.
Consumer advocacy groups have pushed for labeling requirements for transparency, while labeling opponents point out there’s no scientific evidence that genetically engineered foods are unsafe, a position backed up by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“I fought to ensure this standard recognizes the 30-plus years of proven safety of biotechnology while ensuring consumer access to more information about their food,” Roberts said.
About 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton produced in the U.S. have been genetically modified to resist pests or drought.
Earlier this year, Campbell Soup Co. became the first major food producer to voluntarily adopt GMO labeling for its products.
The Roberts-Stabenow compromise would allow food producers to comply in various ways, such as text on a package, a symbol or a link to a website with a QR code.
Smaller food manufacturers — to be defined by the USDA in a future rule-making process — could use websites or phone numbers to comply, or would be exempt from the mandate.
Meat, poultry and eggs — regulated by the USDA — would generally be exempt. But fish, which falls under FDA jurisdiction, would need to be labeled.
Further, the bill prohibits the secretary of agriculture from designating meats as GMO simply because the animal may have eaten genetically engineered feed.
Under the agreement, organic food products can be labeled “non-GMO,” indicating they do not contain genetically modified organisms. Organic products, by the government’s definition, cannot contain GMO ingredients.
The bill would still need to be approved by the Agriculture Committee, the full Senate and the House before it goes to the president’s desk for a signature — a process that could take months.
Large food manufacturers would have two years to comply. Smaller ones, however the USDA chooses to define them, would get three.
Food industry groups praised the bill.
“We are pleased to see that the legislation enables transparency, clarity and consistency in disclosure,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, “and reflects the wide variety of ways that consumers will get this information about the foods they buy.”
While advocates of stronger labeling requirements said they supported a national standard, they expressed disappointment that consumers would have to rely on their smartphones in some cases to learn more about their food.
“This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy producer, “a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package.”