U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., reached an agreement on a proposed bill regarding the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The legislation, agreed upon on June 23, would pre-empt a bill set to take effect in Vermont that was set to take effect on July 1. Critics of the Vermont legislation have said that even though it is a Vermont law, it would have a widespread nationwide impact requiring food companies from other states that sell in Vermont to comply with the law. It would also create the potential for a patchwork of different state laws that would be cumbersome and confusing, adversaries say.

The bill will next be introduced in the full Senate.

In a press release, Roberts, the committee chairman, said the legislation includes the following provisions:

  • Pre-emption: immediately prohibits states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered. 
  • National Uniform Standard: the U.S. Department of Agriculture establishes through rulemaking a uniform national disclosure standard for human food that is or may be bioengineered. 
  • Disclosure: requires mandatory disclosure with several options, including text on package, a symbol, or a link to a website (QR code or similar technology); small food manufacturers will be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements; very small manufacturers and restaurants are exempted. 
  • Meat: foods where meat, poultry, and egg products are the main ingredient are exempted. The legislation prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten bioengineered feed.  

“As I have said before, I will continue to stand up for the farmers and ranchers that produce the safest and most affordable food in the world,” Roberts said. “I will not ignore the overwhelming science that has determined biotechnology to be safe, but with the implementation of Vermont’s disruptive law on the horizon, it is our duty to act. I urge my colleagues to join me.” 

Stabenow, the committee’s ranking member, also praised the agreement.

“This bipartisan bill is a win for consumers and families,” Stabenow said. “For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

“This proposal is also a win for our nation’s farmers and food producers. Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food. I also wanted a bill that prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state. This bill achieved all of those goals, and most importantly recognizes that consumers want more information about the foods they buy.”

Agriculture groups respond

The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) was among the groups to welcome and support the federal legislation.

"This agreement would protect everyone who touches the U.S. food chain from the costly and negative impacts of Vermont's on-package labeling mandate. It also gives consumers access to the information they desire when making food-related decisions and does so without shunning (genetically engineered) products, which are proven to be safe and nutritious," Leah Wilkinson, AFIA vice president of legislative, regulatory and state affairs.

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, has been an avid proponent of a federal law concerning GMO labeling. He also expressed pleasure that a compromise had been reached.

“The bipartisan agreement reached today by Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow is a solution to the issue of GMO food labeling that America’s farmer co-ops and their producer-owners strongly supports. The package is also a victory for consumers across the country, who will have more information about how their food was produced than ever before,” said Conner.

“This agreement is now more important than ever, since the July 1 deadline for the Vermont labeling law is now a week away. By acting now, the chaos caused by a patchwork of labeling laws and an increase in costs associated with that can be largely avoided.”

American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall took a more cautious approach in assessing the GMO labeling legislation.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation continues to oppose mandatory food labels that are not necessary for health or safety reasons. We also oppose a patchwork of state-by-state labeling rules. We are reviewing this legislative proposal, and over the next few days will determine how it fits with our policy. We will also assess its impact on farmers' abilities to use modern agricultural technology to produce more, high-quality food,” Duvall stated.

“This deal clearly seeks to prevent a 50-state mismatched quilt of differing labeling standards. But the mandatory feature holds significant potential to contribute to confusion and unnecessary alarm. Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe a national, voluntary standard remains the best approach. Our board will deliver a decision soon.”