NCFC opposes mandatory labeling of food products containing biotech ingredients. The technology behind genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture is proven safe for the environment and consumers, and is key to increasing food production necessary to feed a rapidly growing global population. Acceptance by consumers depends on a continued effort to better inform the public about the environmental and health benefits this technology provides.
For two years, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), co-chaired by NCFC and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, worked closely with members of the House and Senate to produce a bill that preempts state mandated GMO labeling laws while providing more information for consumers wanting to know more about biotechnology-derived food ingredients.
On July 23, 2015, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which preempted state laws and established a voluntary labeling program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With a looming deadline of July 1, 2016, when the state of Vermont’s mandatory labeling law was set to take effect, attention was shifted to the Senate to pass similar legislation.
Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, worked closely over the next year to come up with their own agreement to garner 60 votes in the Senate. After consideration of several iterations of a bill, on July 7, 2016, the Senate passed a bioengineering disclosure agreement (S. 764) with a strong bipartisan vote of 63 yeas to 30 nays. A week later, the House of Representatives took up the same measure and passed it by a vote of 306 yeas to 117 nays. The President signed the bill into law on July 29, 2016.
Key provisions of the final agreement include:
- 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.
The Coalition is working closely with USDA during the implementation process and will provide comments throughout the rulemaking. The bill directs USDA to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard by July 2018.
A new biotechnology food that is “substantially equivalent” (meaning it has the same chemical composition and nutritional value as conventional varieties) does not require a special label. The FDA regulations state that requiring the labeling of foods that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist. And according to the 2012 Consumer Survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), U.S. consumers overwhelmingly support current federal rules for labeling foods. Of the small percentage of consumers who want more detail on their labels, only three percent (or one percent of the total sample) cited biotechnology as information they would like to see on food labels.
The 2012 defeat of California’s ballot initiative, Proposition 37, to mandate the labeling of food products containing biotech ingredients was only the beginning of an onslaught of similar legislative state initiatives. Almost a year later, a comparable proposal in Washington State was on the ballot and also defeated by a narrow margin.
Yet, some states have been successful in banning or mandating the labeling of genetically modified products. In June 2013, Connecticut’s Governor signed the country’s first comprehensive food labeling law requiring a label be placed on all products meant for human consumption that contain GMO ingredients. Maine followed shortly after and passed a comparable law. Both pieces of legislation have trigger clauses that will only allow the laws to take effect after four neighboring states enact similar labeling requirements. Vermont lawmakers passed a mandatory GMO labeling bill in April 2014 and it was signed soon after by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. The Vermont GMO labeling legislation is the first in the nation to be passed without trigger clauses similar to those found in bills passed by Connecticut and Maine. The Vermont law is set to take effect on July 1, 2016.
GMO labeling also was the subject of debate during consideration of the farm bill in 2013. Several amendments were filed in support of GMO labeling, and one requiring labeling of all GMO products was voted on. The amendment offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont failed by a vote of 27 to 71, sending a clear signal that this issue was not supported by an over-whelming majority of the United States Senate.