Congress Passes GMO Labeling Bill

On July 29, President Barack Obama signed into law S. 764, a bill to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act, which includes a provision to create a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, and preempts any state laws. The legislation, also known as the Roberts-Stabenow bill, passed the House of Representatives 306-117 and Senate 63-30 earlier this month.

The legislation represents a compromise that has divided proponents of mandatory labeling, particularly over the allowance of QR codes—a barcode that, when scanned by a smartphone, connects the user to the desired information online—as a means of labeling. The bill allows companies to choose how they label their products, including the use of a QR code; for smaller companies, a URL or phone number can be provided in place of the information.

Just Label It, a coalition of the Environmental Working Group and several food companies, does not support the bill because of its acceptance of QR codes as an alternative to putting the information on the label; but, another leader in the fight for labeling, the Organic Trade Association, backed the bill even before it passed the House.

Those opposed to mandatory labeling are also not happy about the bill.

“I don't think that it's the best bill that we could have, but it's the best bill we could pass,” Richard Wilkins, a Delaware farmer and president of the American Soybean Association, told NPR.

In recent years, GMOs and the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients have been divisive issues, with some groups wishing to follow Europe’s lead and label all GMOs and others fearing that such labeling could mislead consumers and decrease sales. There is no science showing that GMOs are more dangerous or detrimental for humans. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that because of this, labeling is not necessary.

Another issue with the bill is its preemption of state laws. Vermont just implemented its mandatory GMO labeling law at the beginning of July, and the federal bill seems to be in reaction to the stricter requirements of that state’s new law. 

“The implementation of the Vermont mandatory GMO labeling bill on July 1 makes essential some form of federal labeling preemption,” William Lesser, a science and business professor at Cornell University told Bloomberg. “The likelihood of a hodgepodge of individual state and local labeling laws would be confusing for consumers and costly for the food system, and ultimately consumers.”

But Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed disappointment in what he viewed as a weaker law.

“It’s a shame that Congress chose to replace our standard with a weaker one that provides multiple ways for the food industry to avoid transparent labeling,” said Shumlin in a July 14 statement.

Vermont is not the only state to pursue GMO labeling laws. Connecticut and Maine both have labeling laws contingent on their neighboring states adopting laws. California and Washington also were expected to adopt GMO labeling laws within the next year. 

The fight over GMO labeling is not complete despite the passage of the law, however. Much of the details over what is labeled, i.e., what constitutes genetically modified, is still being worked out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. For example, there is a question if refined products like soy oil or sugar from beets will need to be labeled because they are made from genetically modified crops even though the final product contains no genetically modified material.

statement released by Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It campaign, summed up the next steps in the GMO labeling controversy. “The fight for national mandatory GMO transparency now shifts to (the) USDA and to the marketplace, where companies should think twice before they remove GMO labels from their packages,” Hirshberg said.

In the U.S. about 90 percent of alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, yellow summer squash and zucchini are genetically modified, according to the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that provides a verification system for non-GMO products.