On July 14, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a genetically engineered (GE) labeling standard with bipartisan support. The bill is identical to S. 764, which passed the Senate last week, and represents a compromise brokered by Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts. The White House has indicated that President Obama will sign the legislation into law.
Significantly, the legislation sets a national standard that preempts current and future attempts by states to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, including Vermont’s mandatory labeling standard that went into effect July 1.
The legislation establishes a mandatory disclosure standard that applies to all food products intended for human consumption containing bioengineered ingredients. Food companies may satisfy the disclosure requirement through text, a symbol, or by use of certain embedded electronic or digital links, such as a QR Code.
Animal-based products such as beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are prohibited from being considered bioengineered foods solely because the animal consumed feeds containing GE ingredients. The legislation does not require animal feed to comply with the disclosure requirement.
Under the legislation, the Secretary of Agriculture is required to promulgate rules that implement the national standard within two years. The legislation requires the Secretary to provide additional flexibility for small food manufacturers in the regulations, including additional disclosure options and more time to comply with the standard. Some very small food manufacturers will be exempt under the regulations.
White House press officials indicated that the administration was pleased with the Roberts–Stabenow compromise effort. “While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers’ interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops,” spokeswoman Katie Hill told reporters in an e-mail.
The federal standard comes just days after Vermont’s standard, passed in 2014, went into effect and follows failed attempts to mandate labeling in states such as Colorado, Oregon, and California. Food manufacturers expressed concern that a patchwork of state laws would make compliance difficult and potentially reduce consumer choice if manufacturers elected to pull products off store shelves rather than implement costly labeling requirements. After being signed into law, the focus will quickly turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s implementation of the legislation and how the agency will define key terms that directly impact applicability (for example, the definition of “small” and “very small” food manufacturers).