On October 21, 2015, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition & Forestry held a hearing on the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered crops. The hearing specifically focused on an anti-GMO labeling bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed  in July and that is now pending in the Senate.

The legislation, entitled the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, if approved by the Senate in its current form, would establish a federal standard of voluntary labeling and preempt any state mandatory GMO labeling laws.

For example, Vermont, which is the first state with a mandatory labeling law, would be prohibited from enforcing its law requiring GMO labeling if the federal legislation is enacted. Vermont’s mandatory labeling law is to be effective in July 2016, though it has been challenged in federal court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and other industry groups; the parties are currently conducting discovery. There are at least 26 other states considering similar laws. While Maine and Connecticut have approved laws requiring GMO labeling, neither state’s law is effective until other states join the GMO-labeling movement.

Hearing details

Groups at the hearing who support the federal legislation and a voluntary national labeling standard, as opposed to mandatory state standards, included the GMA, National Corn Growers Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and National Grain and Feed Association.

GMA spokesman, Brian Kennedy said that GMA was “confident that Congress will act on this issue this year,” given that members of both the House and Senate and both parties have repeatedly told them that “a 50-state patchwork of laws is not sustainable.” GMA represents more than 300 food companies that are opposed to mandatory GMO labeling.

The food manufacturing groups are particularly concerned that new state mandatory labeling laws will lead to consumer confusion as they claim GMOs are well regulated and are no less safe or nutritious than foods made with non-GMO ingredients. There is also concern about significant increased costs for the manufacturers that would result from changing the packaging of these products, which in turn could lead to increased food prices for consumers.

Meanwhile, the Consumers Union and five other consumer organizations expressed concern that the lineup of speakers at the hearing was not well balanced. The organizations said that according to many consumer polls, “90 percent of consumers favor mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food.” Opponents of the bill, who prefer the nickname ‘Deny Americans the Right to Know,’ or DARK Act, hope that the legislation will stall in the Senate.

The issue of GMO labeling has become more contentious since March, when the World Health Organization’s cancer research group held that glyphosate, a key herbicide sprayed on genetically engineered crops, could possibly cause cancer in humans.

Background of the House bill

Some of the key measures of the anti-GMO labeling bill approved by the House and being considered by the Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition & Forestry are:

  • Creation of new, voluntary labels under a National Genetically Engineered Food Certification Program, to be established by the Secretary of Agriculture;
  • Allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require GMO foods to be labeled if ‘there is a material difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity, or other attributes’ of the GMO version compared with the ‘natural’ version of the food;
  • Require the FDA to establish regulations that set requirements for foods with labels that contain an express or implied claim that the product is ‘natural.’; and
  • Prohibit state and local governments from mandating the labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops.

This is the first time in a decade that the Senate has held a hearing on genetically modified agriculture. For more information on the GMO debate, you can listen to our presentations from last week’s Third Annual Food Law Tele-Summit.