In one of its last moves before the start of a seven-week summer recess, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill (S. 764) on July 14 that would create a national standard for labeling genetically modified foods.
The legislation, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign, would prohibit U.S. states from enacting their own laws for labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Senate approved the measure on July 7.
S. 764 is a compromise, offered by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). The legislation requires companies to label GMO foods either with text on the packaging, a symbol created by the Agriculture Department, or a barcode that can be scanned with a smartphone.
Leaders in the House had hoped to create a voluntary program to certify that foods do not contain GMOs and even won passage last year of a bill to do so, H.R. 1599. But they voted for the Senate compromise, saying it was the only way to immediately stop states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
Vermont became the first U.S. state to require labels on GMO foods on July 1. Other states are considering similar measures.
The food industry and farm groups have been pushing for quick passage of S. 764, claiming that a patchwork of state laws will lead to confusion and higher prices at the grocery store.
“The passage of this bill allows for both consumers and producers to move on from this fight, and benefit from a uniformed, standardized labeling law across the country,” says Richard Wilkins, a soybean farmer from Greenwood, Del., and president of the American Soybean Association. Most soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.
But organic food producers and consumer advocacy groups are urging President Obama to veto the legislation. They say the use of barcodes would deny one-third of Americans who do not have smartphones—low-income, rural, minority, and elderly populations—the right to know what is in their food. Many GMO foods, including those made with gene-editing tools such as CRISPR, would also be exempted from the labeling requirements, they say.