The U.S. Senate was ready to vote on a bill to establish a national standard for labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as C&EN went to press last week. Passage would pave the way for Congress to block states from requiring such labels.
If the bill gets Senate approval, lawmakers will need to work out differences between the legislation (S. 764) and a GMO labeling measure (H.R. 1599) passed by the House of Representatives last year. The House bill would establish a voluntary program under the Department of Agriculture to certify that foods do not contain GMOs.
The Senate bill, on the other hand, would give companies the option to label products that contain GMOs in one of three ways: text on the packaging, a USDA-designed symbol, or an electronic barcode that consumers could scan with a smartphone to get more information.
Both bills would immediately stop states from enacting their own GMO food labeling laws. In the absence of a federal standard, some states have passed such laws with varying requirements. The first went into effect in Vermont on July 1.
The food industry and farm groups support the Senate bill and the creation of a national GMO food labeling standard, claiming that a patchwork of state laws leads to inconsistent information and higher food prices.
Environmental and food safety activists, organic food producers, and some Democrats oppose the bill, claiming that many genetically modified products would be exempt from the labeling rules. “The novel definition of ‘bioengineering’ under the bill would exclude from labeling a vast number of current foods produced with genetic engineering,” a coalition of advocacy groups wrote in a June 27 letter to senators.
The measure would exempt foods that contain modifications found in nature, “those in which technology cannot as yet detect the novel genetic material, and foods made with non in vitro recombinant DNA techniques,” the coalition warns.