The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday reached a landmark agreement on a new GMO labeling bill pushing for a national system for disclosing genetically engineered ingredients on certain food products.
Under the bipartisan bill, major food companies would be required to inform consumers whether their products contain GMOs by placing text directly on packaging, by using a special symbol or by implementing a bar code-like electronic link compatible with smartphones. Mid-sized companies would be able to use a phone number to satisfy disclosure requirements, while small companies and restaurants would be exempt entirely.
The new bill also seeks to prevent state and local governments from establishing their own unique sets of GMO labeling laws.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan struck the long-negotiated agreement with exactly one week left before a Vermont mandatory labeling law is scheduled to go into effect.
“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,” Roberts said in a statement.
Beef, pork, poultry and egg products from animals fed genetically engineered ingredients would not require labels.
So far, Monsanto has been quiet in regard to the new labeling bill. Historically, though, the St. Louis-based seed company has been one of the biggest opponents of mandatory GMO labeling. Monsanto alone has spent millions of dollars in donations against GMO labeling initiatives, while also routinely including the issue on its lobbying disclosure records.
“The things that drives [me] a little bit nuts, and is the frustrating piece in this, is it’s such a polarizing debate and I don’t think it should be,” said Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant in a recent interview.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the United States are grown from GMO seeds. According to some estimates, roughly 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The Roberts-Stabenow bill has so far drawn support from a mix of industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Corn Refiners Association. The Organic Trade Association has also announced its support of the bill, which it says “unequivocally” safeguards USDA organic standards.
But the bill has been attacked from key groups on both sides of the GMO labeling issue, too.
The American Farm Bureau Federation still opposes putting any kind of mandatory label on foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.
Center for Food Safety Executive Director Andrew Kimball called the bill “a tremendous blow to the food movement and America’s right to know.” He argued that the bill leaves out a large portion of consumers who may not own smartphones.
“Clear, on-package [labeling] should be mandatory to ensure all Americans have equal access to product information so that they can make informed choices about what they purchase and feed their families,” Kimball said in a statement.
U.S. officials would have two years to implement the bill’s new provisions.