The Fight Over GMO Labeling Rages on Capitol Hill

Have you ever seen that sticker before? The Non GMO project is an organization that independently verifies whether a product has been made according to "rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance." The bag of popcorn pictured evidently did. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The clock is ticking for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to set a national standard for labeling foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. Why the sudden urgency? Because on July 1, the first mandatory genetically modified organism labeling law is set to go into effect in Vermont, something lawmakers who oppose the requirements say will be disastrous to the food industry.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which was proposed by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and passed out of committee on March 1, could go to the senate floor for a vote any time. The House already passed the bill in July 2015. If it became federal law, it would stop the Vermont law in its tracks.

Dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, Roberts' bill blocks state laws like Vermont's. "The core issue at hand is the law would pre-empt states from making labeling GMOs mandatory, denying consumers the right to know what's in their food," says Colin O'Neil, Agriculture Policy Director with Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. Instead the bill makes labeling voluntary.

But just days after Roberts' bill passed committee, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also introduced legislation to ensure consumers can find GMO ingredient labeling on food packaging without subjecting food producers to confusing labeling requirements.

"The bill introduced by Sen. Merkley is an alternative proposal that would still pre-empt states, but instead it creates a national mandatory labeling standard," O'Neil says. "That gives consumers the information they are demanding and companies flexibility and a number of options on how to label bio-engineered ingredients."

The Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act requires manufacturers to disclose the genetically modified ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel in one of four ways:

1. Manufacturers can use a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to indicate that it is "genetically engineered."

2. Manufacturers can identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list.

3.Manufacturers can add a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredients list stating the product was "produced with genetic engineering."

4. The FDA would have the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers, that would clearly and conspicuously disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging.

And GMO labeling appears to be what the American people want. A 2015 poll by the Mellman Group found that nearly nine out of 10 Americans were in support of mandatory labels.

But that's exactly what powerful players like Monsanto, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau Federation and American Soybean Association don't want. And they overwhelmingly back Roberts' bill (for voluntary labeling), outspending opponents of the bill 20 to 1 in lobbying.

"The legislation establishes national standards for foods made with genetically engineered ingredients, ensuring consumers and farmers aren't forced to deal with a confusing patchwork of different state labeling mandates. It requires that labels be based in science and supports our long-standing grassroots policy for voluntary labeling and factual information sharing on the value of this important agricultural technology," Zippy Duvall, president American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement. Other supporters of the bill claim a mandatory labeling system would confuse and mislead consumers, drive up food costs and hinder agricultural advancement.

Not so, says O'Neil. "The FDA requires juices made from concentrate to be labeled, and we allow companies to say their juice is not from concentrate so consumers have a choice and know all of the information," he says. "I don't think that [label] acts as a skull-and-crossbones to the industry."

Celebrity chef and co-founder of Food Policy Action Tom Colicchio also disagrees and sent his own petition to Capitol Hill with the signatures of more than 4,000 chefs, urging senators to vote against the DARK Act.

"Senator Roberts' misguided bill ignores the voices of Americans who want information about what's in their food and how it's grown. ... As food professionals, parents and consumers, thousands of chefs are calling on the Senate to reject the DARK Act and stand up for transparency in our food system," Colicchio writes in a statement.

"We are certainly calling for lawmakers to listen to constituents and not high-paid lobbyists," O'Neil says. "The individual state labeling laws are nearly identical when it comes to definition and scope. If members of Congress are so concerned that the individual state labeling will cause confusion, the easiest fix is a national standard."

Editor's Note: March 16, 2016

The Senate rejected Sen. Roberts' Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would have prevented states from requiring GMO labels on food. The 48-to-49 vote fell short of the 60 votes required to move forward. Democrats are still pushing for Sen. Merkley's alternative bill, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act, which would create a national mandatory labeling standard. "I have been flexible and have compromised in order to address concerns about making information available to consumers," Roberts says in a statement. "Simply put, if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same."