The Final Word? House Concurs With Senate GMO Labeling Bill

July 14, 2016
Law for mandatory, national labeling of genetically engineered ingredients awaits President's signature, which is expected.

A national GMO labeling bill was approved 306-117 this morning (July 14) by the U.S. House of Representatives, setting in place a mandatory (although with options) labeling law that will alert consumers to the presence of genetically engineered ingredients. Just as importantly, it pre-empts the sole state law in Vermont, which went into effect July 1.

Although the bill still must be signed by President Obama, he has indicated he will approve it. It's the same bipartisan bill hammered out June 23 in the Senate Agriculture Committee and approved by the full Senate 63-30 on July 7.

Under the legislation, food & beverage companies could select from among three options: add "contains genetically modified organisms" to their labels, use a GMO label to be created by USDA or use the previously debated QR code, which the food industry's lobbying arm has dubbed SmartLabel.

Using the SmartLabel would require consumers to scan a label with a QR code reader on a smartphone or to look up the item on a computer. But this electronic option would require a quick and prominent link disclosing the presence of GMOs, not burying it behind marketing and other product information.

Oversight of the program apparently falls on USDA, not FDA. The Dept. of Agriculture would have one year from when the law is enacted to determine if there are any technological challenges preventing consumers from accessing GMO information using electronic media.

Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), the food industry's Washington representative, called it, "remarkable to see broad and bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate come together to pass this GMO disclosure legislation. Republicans and Democrats found consensus on the common ground that a patchwork of different state labeling laws would be a costly and confusing disaster for the nation’s food supply chain. They also joined together to give consumers more access to consistent and helpful information about genetic engineering."

Not everyone in the food industry is thrilled. Before today's House approval, the Just Label It organization posted: "The GMO labeling legislation passed by the Senate and under consideration by the House this week falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package. What’s more, the Roberts-Stabenow compromise contains loopholes that could limit the number of products that must carry a GMO disclosure. While we support a national, mandatory GMO labeling system, the legislation passed by the Senate and under consideration by the House does not give American consumers the same simple disclosure used in 64 other nations."

The Senate bill resulted from weeks of negotiation between Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the agriculture committee and advocate for a weaker labeling law; and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, who fought for a stronger rule. Each called it a win for consumers, both for providing the additional information and for keeping down the cost of food products. They also noted it covers "tens of thousands of food products exempt from Vermont’s law."

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