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Senate Approves National Mandatory GMO Food Labelling Standard

The Senate on 7 July approved on a 63-30 vote a controversial bi-partisan agreement between two key senators that would establish the first mandatory federal label for food products containing genetically modified organisms. The legislation aims to counter a Vermont GMO labelling law that took effect on 1 July and the potential proliferation of additional and varying state-level standards. According to a press release from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas), who negotiated the agreement with Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (Democrat-Michigan), the proposed legislation includes the following provisions.

  • immediately prohibits states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered
  • the U.S. Department of Agriculture would establish through rulemaking a uniform national disclosure standard for human food that is or may be bioengineered
  • provides several options for complying with the mandatory disclosure requirement, including text on package, a symbol, or a link to a website (QR code or similar technology)
  • small food manufacturers would be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements
  • foods where meat, poultry and egg products are the main ingredient would be exempted, as would very small manufacturers and restaurants
  • USDA would be prohibited from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten bioengineered feed  

The legislation has been met with both approval and criticism. On the one hand, the National Milk Producers Federation called the bill a “sound and workable approach that will reaffirm the federal government’s role in food labelling policy and prevent the chaotic mess that would arise from leaving this issue to the whims of 50 different states.” The American Farm Bureau Federation said that while the legislation is not perfect “it does take critical steps to prevent a confusing 50-state patchwork of laws disclosing the presence of entirely harmless ingredients.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce added that the bill would provide “helpful disclosure options for companies that would be regulated and provides more flexibility for small and very small food manufacturers.”

On the other hand, Food and Water Watch asserted that the legislation “fails to provide any meaningful federal labelling requirement” and represents “a rollback of democracy at the behest of the world’s largest agribusiness and biotech corporations.” The Center for Food Safety was also sharply critical, condemning the legislation as “discriminatory” and “deeply-flawed” while warning that it could be “devastating to the organic standard.” Meanwhile, a coalition of 70 farm, consumer, environmental and religious groups described the process to develop the legislation as “profoundly undemocratic and a violation of basic legislative practice” because the bill was not subject to a hearing and interested parties did not have an opportunity to submit testimony. The coalition contends that the legislation does not prescribe any mandatory standards for GMO labelling and instead pre-empts the labelling laws of several states, including Vermont, Connecticut, Maine and Alaska, based exclusively on a multi-year discretionary process determined solely by USDA.

The Food and Drug Administration also expressed significant concern in a document that provided technical assistance to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Specifically, the agency believes that USDA’s regulations implementing the mandatory standard under the bill could conflict with FDA’s labelling requirements because it would give USDA authorities over food labelling that are otherwise under FDA’s sole regulatory jurisdiction. For example, depending on what USDA requires for small packages, it is possible that a manufacturer would not be able to fit both FDA’s required statements and USDA’s required information on the label. FDA also reiterated its long-held policy position that the use of genetic engineering in food production has not presented any safety concerns and, therefore, the use of GE techniques in food production is not a material fact that must be disclosed on food labels. The agency added that the issuance by FDA of regulations governing labelling of foods as bioengineered could be understood by the public as reflecting on the safety of such foods.

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