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Voluntary or Mandatory? Senate Faces Off on GMO Labeling

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Mar 04, 2016

Just days after Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, got a nod on his voluntary GMO labeling bill from the Chairman's Mark [draft of the legislation] on Biotechnology labeling solutions with a bipartisan vote of 14-6, select Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced legislation rivaling Roberts' bill, which would block states from issuing mandatory GMO labels and prevent the implementation of state-by-state labeling legislation. 

The rush to act stems from a Vermont labeling law set to take effect July 1. Vermont is set to require such labels this summer, and other states are considering similar laws.

The Democrats, led by Senator Jeff Merkley, launched what they call a "common sense" alternative that Merkley says would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GMOs on a product's Nutritional Fact Panel, but would give them the choice in how they comply. The legislation would also permit the FDA to develop a symbol, in cooperation with food manufacturers, to indicate the presence of GMOs on packaging, The Hill reported.

Food manufacturers could choose to put the words “genetically engineered” in parentheses, next to a relevant ingredient; identify genetically modified ingredients with an asterisk and explain the asterisk at the bottom of the ingredients list; or apply a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredient list, stating the product was "produced with genetic engineering" ingredients. This offers the food industry a more palatable way of presenting the information.

The Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act, which is backed by food companies including Campbell Soup, Ben & Jerry's, Amy's Kitchen and others, would trump all state-led GMO labeling laws. Senate backers said this bill would inform consumers without burdening manufacturers with a patchwork of state regulations.

Supporters of the Roberts measure say it's necessary to provide state-by-state regulations. Roberts' bill would block Vermont’s law and create new voluntary labels for companies that want to use them on food packages that contain GMOs. The food industry has strongly backed both bills, saying GMOs are safe and a patchwork of state laws isn’t practical. 

Critics want a mandatory federal standard for GMO labels. Merkley's proposal would require mandatory GMO labeling on the back of packages, not the front, and no disapproving "warning" statements about GMO ingredients, Merkley emphasized.

"There is a way to give consumers the information they are asking for without placing unfair or conflicting requirements on food producers," reported Merkley in a statement. "This legislation provides the common-sense pathway forward."