On March 16, 2016, the U.S. Senate voted 48-49 against invoking cloture to cut off a filibuster on the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Act. The bill would have established a federal standard of voluntary labeling and preempted any mandatory GMO labeling state laws. In July 2015, a similar bill called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 successfully passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. In October 2015, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry held a hearing on the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered crops that focused on the House bill.
The stalling of the bill is a victory for the State of Vermont, whose anti-GMO labeling law, which is the first mandatory labeling law in the nation, will become effective this July. The Senate’s rejection of the bill is also a green light for other New England states of Maine and Connecticut that have passed laws requiring similar GMO-labels if other states nearby put one into effect (i.e., a triggering requirement). The Vermont law was the first one without a triggering requirement. There are at least 26 other states considering similar laws.
The industry response to the state labeling laws is mixed. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has challenged the Vermont law in federal court and has requested to block the enforcement of the law until the case is resolved; however, the request was denied but has been appealed by GMA. In contrast, General Mills announced that it will start labeling products that contain genetically modified ingredients to comply with the Vermont law and the company will also roll out similar labeling for all of its products nationwide. The company stated that this was the most practical approach. Campbell Soup is also printing new national labels in preparation for Vermont’s law and stated that it opposes state-by-state labeling requirements. Additionally, a Nestle spokeswoman stated that the company supported mandatory informed disclosure of GMO products but believes it is best accomplished by a uniform federal approach.
But some mid-size companies, like Herr Foods Inc., have announced that they are considering pulling their products from Vermont once the law takes effect, as the cost and effort to meet the state’s labeling requirements and future state-specific labeling requirements would be too burdensome.
Senators are working to reach a compromise regarding mandatory labeling, where some senators such as Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) have stated that they are ready to reject a state-by-state labeling law like the one in Vermont but only in order to support a uniform national mandatory labeling initiative. Their key focus has been on the citizens’ right to know about the ingredients in consumed food products.
Some of the key measures from the blocked bill included:
- Empowering the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard;
- Requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations that would prohibit express or implied claims involving increased food safety or quality solely based on the absence of bioengineered ingredients; and
- Prohibiting state and local governments from mandating the labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops.
Food manufacturers and distributors who sell products with genetically-modified ingredients may wish to consider the creation of labeling for their products that comply with the Vermont labeling law as the law will take effect in less than four months and the creation of two sets of labels – one to be applied solely to food sent to or sold in Vermont and one for everywhere else — is likely to be too costly an undertaking. It is important that companies monitor similar developments in states across the country and understand the specific labeling requirements of each state, as they may vary greatly. We will continue to monitor state and federal changes to the requirements and will post updates on the blog.
 A national mandatory labeling bill, the Genetically Engineered Right-to-Know Act, was introduced in the House (H.R. 913) and Senate (S. 511) but no action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced in 2015.