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July 25, 2016
Politics & Co.

It's states vs. feds as Congress rules on GMO labeling

In an effort to head off what was seen as a patchwork quilt of state labeling laws for foods that contain genetically modified organisms, the U.S. Senate on July 7 voted 63–30 for a bill that would require GMO contents in foods to be displayed using words, a website or phone number, or a Quick Response bar code that can be read by a smart phone.

The U.S. House of Representatives concurred with the Senate, voting 306-117 in favor of the bill on July 14. A year ago, the House passed a bill that would make GMO labeling voluntary, but since the Senate bill differs, it required another vote. The bill will now go to President Obama.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King voted for an initial procedural bill on July 1, but under pressure from organic and other groups, voted against the final vote on July 7, in essence supporting Maine's state law. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted against the bill, as his state already has a labeling law in effect.

In what ultimately could cause a food fight with states, the Senate bill would preempt state GMO labeling laws. Vermont's GMO labeling law went into effect July 1. Maine signed GMO labeling into law in early January 2014, but it will only go into effect if four contiguous states enact similar laws, which hasn't happened yet.

"It is not the business of Congress to overstep what the states have done," Sanders said in a Fortune magazine article. Vermont's labeling law simply reads "partially produced with genetic engineering" on applicable product packages.

Most corn, soybean and sugar crops grown in the the United States are from genetically engineered seeds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Senate bill may not consider such items bioengineered foods when used as food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil or GMO corn, critics say.

The Senate bill says food that requires labeling must contain genetic material modified through in vitro (outside the body) recombinant DNA techniques, meaning they would be modified in a way that can't be replicated through typical breeding methods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that language will exempt foods containing oils and sugars which, when processed, no longer contain a genetic trace of the GMO crops from which they came. The bill as it now stands does not cover new technologies like gene editing.

Why label?

Reasons for labeling vary, but the consensus is that people simply want to know what is in their food. It will cost money to change labeling, some manufacturers argue, plus there are some surveys that indicate a GMO label may cause consumers to avoid buying a product.

A June 13-21 online survey of 1,665 primary shoppers by MSR Group and sponsored by the American Soybean Association and other U.S. food and agriculture trade associations found that when consumers were asked about the Vermont GMO wording, 73% said they were less likely to buy foods with on-pack GMO disclosures. Some 36% perceived the food as less safe, 28% less healthful, 22% less nutritious and 20% worse for the environment.

Grocery Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pamela Bailey, in supporting the Senate's bill, said in a statement, "consumers and small businesses in the state [Vermont] are already facing fewer products on the shelves and higher costs of compliance on small businesses."

But organic pioneer Rodale Institute wrote in a letter to all members of the U.S. Senate in late June that, "The bill was ostensibly about labeling, but it has become a vehicle for a broader attack on organic agriculture."

The fight over GMO labeling has been contentious and costly. For example, food and biotechnology companies spent about $101 million to oppose it in 2015, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that cited Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz Co., Kellogg's, Land O'Lakes and General Mills as spending a combined $20.6 million to lobby against GMO labeling.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include the latest votes by Sens. Collins and King and to add details about the bill.

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