On Thursday, July 7, the U.S. Senate voted 63-30 to pass a compromise GMO bill that not only brings regulation to the federal level, but also preempts the Vermont GMO regulation that went into effect on July 1.
The bill now passes to the House of Representatives, but is expected to pass fairly easily.
If passed, food companies would still be required to disclose GMO ingredients, however, this could be done by including a QR code on the packaging which consumers would scan for information. Small companies could simply list a website or phone number where consumers could get the information.
“The compromise bill passed by the Senate doesn’t make advocates of labeling genetically engineered foods particularly happy, but is a relief to food producers fearful of a patchwork of state labeling laws,” said Creighton R. Magid, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and head of its Washington, D.C., office. This is because the bill would prohibit states, counties, and cities from enacting their own disclosure standards for genetically engineered food, preempting Vermont’s law, explained Magid, who is also the co-chair of the firm-wide Products Liability practice.
“An important part of the compromise that made the legislation possible is a provision that the presence of bioengineered ingredients be disclosed, but permitting the disclosure to be by means of a QR code or, in the case of smaller manufacturers, websites, or phone numbers. The primary objection to the bill is that consumers shouldn’t have to scan packaged foods to determine if the products contain genetically engineered ingredients,” Magid said.
The bill also includes a less publicized feature – a definition of bioengineered food that that excludes animal products that might otherwise be labeled as GMO because the animal was feed genetically engineered feed. Additionally, the implementing regulations would be able to define whether certain crops would have to be labeled as bioengineered. “The bill leaves it to the Secretary of Agriculture to develop disclosure standards and regulations for bioengineered foods," he said, adding, "The bill pointedly directs the Department of Agriculture – rather than the Food and Drug Administration – to develop the implementing regulations. The Agriculture Department is generally considered more favorably inclined toward the food industry than is the FDA."
The preemption in Vermont is likely being met with mixed response, as the national law is much less prescriptive, but is likely to also put thousands of products back on grocery store shelves, which had been removed because manufacturers had not yet met the labeling law.
The new standards would not go into effect for up to three years.