The House gave the bill final approval in a 306-117 vote, while the Senate voted 63-30 to pass the legislation. The next stop is the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign the measure into law.
The proposed legislation would require GMO ingredients to be disclosed either directly on food product packaging or through the use of a QR code, which would allow consumers to scan a barcode to access the information. Meanwhile smaller companies would be permitted to provide information on whether a product contains GMOs through a phone number or website visible on packaging. There will also be the option to use a yet to be approved symbol from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Industry response to the bill has been mostly positive, due to the fact that a single rule for GMO labeling is considered preferable to individual state requirements. Passage of the bill in Congress aims to preempt the Vermont GMO Labeling Law, which became effective July 1, 2016. Under Vermont's law, foods with GMOs produced before July 1, 2016, but distributed after that date, would be subject to penalties if not properly labeled. If President Obama signs the bill into law, it will block the state's requirements.
Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), Washington, D.C, said the organization, “appreciates the bi-partisan, cooperative efforts demonstrated by Congress in passing a bill that establishes a single, national standard that companies can reasonably apply to ensure consumers have access to information regarding product ingredients. This bill, once signed into law, applies to conventional food and dietary supplements, and prevents a patchwork of state-by-state laws that would have led to consumer confusion and higher product costs.”
Likewise, Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Silver Spring, MD, expressed relief over the likely implementation of a single national standard. However, Mr. McGuffin noted some disappointment in the bill, as “many of AHPA's members view the law's allowance of disclosure of presence of genetically engineered ingredients through a QR code as lacking in transparency and not sufficient to completely inform consumers."
Mr. Mister lauded the efforts of Representatives Mike Conaway (R-TX), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), and Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) for their work in passing this bill.
“This bill is a constructive and practical solution for consumers seeking to educate themselves about whether or not products contain genetically engineered ingredients in order to make informed purchasing decisions,” stated Mr. Mister. “It also provides reasonable options for companies to convey this information in a way that is easy for consumers to access and understand. It’s a win all around.”
The Road Ahead
If put into action, the legislation would require USDA to establish a mandatory GMO labeling standard within two years after the bill is enacted into law.
“AHPA has long taken the position that the issue of GMO labeling should be under the jurisdiction of USDA, and not FDA, so we are pleased that the Congress has designated USDA to implement this law,” Mr. McGuffin said. “AHPA also recognizes the significance of the law's clarification that certification of a food or supplement as organic under USDA's National Organic Program is sufficient for labeling such a product as 'non-GMO.’”
The next step will be the rulemaking process. "Opportunities will exist during the rulemaking process to influence how the law is implemented, and AHPA will be actively engaged in this process when USDA initiates it," Mr. McGuffin said.
Will Consumers Be Satisfied?
New market research from Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, indicated that Americans are actively seeking out more information on their food products, with more than half of adults (56%) actively seeking out nutritional information and guidelines on food labels.
According to the report, “Nutritional Labeling and Clean Labels in the U.S.: Future of Food Retailing,” most American consumers scrutinize labels for information about nutrition and ingredients; actively look for and purchase specific free-from types of grocery products; are aware of issues regarding diet, nutrition and ingredients; and take the initiative to become more educated on these issues.
Packaged Facts stressed that surveys show a growing number of U.S. consumers are concerned about GMOs in their food—even when they don't really understand what GMOs actually are. The research firm cited that some consumers and advocacy groups who generally support mandatory labels do not support the new bill specifically because it gives companies the option to use a QR codes, phone numbers, or website links, rather than transparently providing the information regarding inclusion of GMO ingredients directly on packaging.