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A 2013 demonstration in favor of labeling GMO foods in California.

Steve Rhodes/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

U.S. Senate passes GM food labeling bill

The U.S. Senate has passed, by a vote of 63 to 30, a bill that would create a national standard for labeling food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yesterday’s vote marks a win for food companies, farm groups, and biotech firms, which have been pushing the federal government to set a single national standard in hopes of heading off a patchwork of state labeling laws, such as one that went into effect in Vermont on 1 July. But GMO critics say the bill fails to adequately protect consumers who want to know if a product contains GM ingredients.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT) spoke against the bill during yesterday’s debate, describing it as “a farce of a proposal.” He argued that “with the swift speed with which the proponents of this bill have moved, with no committee process, no debate or amendment process, we will not be able to ensure the language in this bill does exactly what they say that it does. Just take their word for it.”

But Senator Joe Donnelly (D–IN), who supported the bill, said it was a reasonable measure. “It will provide fair and objective information without stigmatizing foods that are completely safe,” he said on the Senate floor. “After months of discussion, we have found a sensible proposal that will bring the right information into our homes and to grocery stores in a responsible way.”

The legislation (S. 764), would block states from issuing mandatory labeling laws and require food manufacturers to use one of three different labels to inform consumers of the presence of GMOs in products. Manufacturers could comply by providing a label that includes a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) symbol indicating the presence of GMOs, print a label using plain language, or add a scanner- or smartphone-readable QR code that links to ingredient information. Small businesses also have the option to place a telephone number or internet website on packages that would direct customers to additional information. USDA would have 2 years to decide which products require labeling.

The bill was the result of a deal crafted by Senators Pat Roberts (R–KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D–MI), the leaders of the Senate agriculture committee. It “strikes a careful balance,” Roberts said on the Senate floor before a procedural vote earlier this week. “It certainly is not perfect, from my perspective … but it is the best bill possible under these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today.” Earlier this year, Roberts failed to persuade the Senate to pass a bill that would have made GMO labeling voluntary for companies. Many firms and agricultural scientists have opposed mandatory labeling, arguing it suggests GM ingredients may not be safe; there is little scientific evidence for that position, they say.

Although the bill drew bipartisan support, half of Senate Democrats (22) voted against it, together with seven Republicans and the Senate’s two Independent members. In particular, critics say the bill includes no penalties for companies that don’t comply with the law, and that the bill’s definitions of GMOs will exempt some ingredients from labeling requirements. For example, the bill states that in order to require a label, foods must “contain genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques” and “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Critics say the language will allow firms to avoid labeling foods containing oils and sweeteners made from GM crops, because processing removes the evidence of modifications. Critics also argue that many of the labels, especially the QR code, would be misleading and confusing to customers.

The Senate bill now goes to the House of Representatives, which earlier this year passed legislation allowing voluntary labeling. Food and farm groups are pressing Congress to finalize the legislation next week, before lawmakers go on a 7-week summer recess. Some companies have already announced that they will start labeling their products in accord with the Vermont law.