On June 23, 2016, the Senate Agriculture Committee agreed to a bipartisan deal that would set a national standard for GMO labeling. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard would amend The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 by setting forth mandatory disclosure requirements for GMO food products, while providing a variety of options to the industry on how to provide consumers with this required information. The deal comes a week before Vermont’s own version of a mandatory GMO labeling law is set to take effect.  If the bipartisan bill is passed, then the national standards would pre-empt Vermont’s law.  Industry groups are showing support for the bill as they want to avoid the challenges of complying with varying state GMO labeling requirements.  The race is now on to get the bill passed in the Senate before the July 1 effective date of the Vermont law; however, the House of Representatives is on break until July 5, which guarantees delaying the possibility of any passage of the bill into law until after the Vermont law goes into effect.

Background on the GMO Labeling Legislation

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 becomes effective on July 1, though it has been challenged in federal court by industry groups. 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 several other states join the GMO-labeling movement.

In March, the Senate blocked an anti-GMO labeling bill that 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; however no action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced in 2015.

If this new bill is passed, it will come as a relief to food companies, some of whom were considering pulling their products out of Vermont altogether, as they contend that the cost and effort to meet the state’s labeling requirements and future state-specific labeling requirements would be too burdensome. Other food producers have also been gearing up to create two sets of  labels, one set to comply with Vermont’s law and another set for the rest of the country.  Many large food companies have created new national labels in preparation for Vermont’s law, to avoid the cost of creating two sets of labels, while  pushing Congress for a federal standard in order to avoid a patchwork of requirements; today’s bill is a result of these efforts.

Key Takeaways from the Bipartisan Bill

  • The bill provides companies with many options on how they could make mandatory disclosures to consumers regarding the GMO ingredients in their products. The disclosure method could be in the form of text, symbol, or electronic or digital link, chosen by the food manufacturer.
  • Exemptions from this legislation include foods where meat, poultry, or egg products are the main ingredient.
  • Products made from animals are no longer to be considered bioengineered solely because the animal may have consumed feed that contained genetically modified ingredients.
  • The bill would provide alternative reasonable disclosure options for food contained in small or very small packages, such as providing a telephone number or website on the package for consumers to learn more about the GMO ingredients in the product.
  • If the bill passes, the Secretary of Agriculture would have two years to finalize the specifics of the labels.

Since the deal has not yet passed the Senate and will not get to the House floor until after recess ends on July 5, it is best for companies to continue their compliance efforts with Vermont’s labeling requirements. Penalties for violation of Vermont’s law can be up to $1,000 per product, per day. The Health Law Pulse will continue to monitor and provide updates regarding the status of this latest bipartisan deal.