U.S. GMO label law clears Congress

(Dave Bedard photo)

A law for mandatory labelling of foods for sale in the U.S. with genetically modified or otherwise “bioengineered” ingredients has cleared both houses of Congress and now goes to President Barack Obama.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved the Senate’s bipartisan bill S.764 by a 306-117 vote, sending it to the White House to be signed into law. The bill doesn’t yet include a clear date for when its provisions would take effect.

The bill, once in effect, would overturn any label laws passed at the state level, including Vermont’s, which took effect July 1.

“Averting a confusing patchwork of state labelling mandates serves the American economy, farmers and ranchers, and consumers well,” Senate agriculture committee chairman Pat Roberts said in a statement Thursday.

Senate ag committee ranking minority member Debbie Stabenow, who along with Roberts backed the bill through the Senate, hailed the law as “prevent(ing) a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state.”

The bill, she said, would set up a national, mandatory system of disclosure for food that contains GMO ingredients and close “glaring loopholes under the Vermont law which would have allowed tens of thousands of processed food products, like frozen dinners or entrees that contain meat and GMO ingredients, to go unlabeled.”

Among the critics of Congress’ label law, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders recently panned it as “an unenforceable, confusing, weak piece of legislation paid for by the large food corporations in this country.”

While the bill makes it a “prohibited act” to fail to disclose GMO information where required, Sanders noted it doesn’t impose any penalties for violations and allows companies to use QR codes, whose messages require a smartphone and QR app to read, to meet the label requirement.

Vermont’s law, he noted, provides for a “uniform labeling standard” and has already led many large food firms to label their U.S. product lines nationwide rather than develop labels specifically for use in Vermont.

Another critic, Jean Halloran of the U.S.-based Consumers Union, said Congress’ bill offers “an ineffective federal standard to be set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that omits many (genetically engineered) products from its purview.”

The bill, she said, would also “disregard citizens’ wishes by invalidating laws in states including Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, and Maine, and produce a legal vacuum for at least two years while USDA writes federal rules.”

“Sufficient access”

As written, the bill requires foods with GMO ingredients to disclose that fact by way of a label with a “text, symbol, or electronic or digital link… with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer.”

The bill also commits the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, within a year of the bill taking effect, to run a study as to whether the electronic options allow “sufficient access” to the information — and to provide “additional and comparable options” for labeling if the electronic options are found to fall short.

The bill also specifies that if a product is not required to carry a GMO label under its terms, that fact alone is not sufficient for a food manufacturer to market that product as “not bioengineered” or “non-GMO.”

However, where foods carry an accepted organic certification, the bill allows that certification to be “considered sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food.”

The bill also prohibits the label law from considering foods derived from animals to be GMO — if the sole reason for the label was to be that the animals in question had consumed GMO feed.

The bill also emphasizes the label law is intended strictly to inform consumers and is not to be considered as a food safety measure.

Specifically, the bill requires that, for the purpose of any regulations to be drawn up from it, GMO foods that have successfully completed federal regulatory review “shall not be treated as safer than, or not as safe as, a non-bioengineered counterpart of the food solely because the food is bioengineered.” — AGCanada.com Network

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