On July 7, senators voted 63-30 to approve a bill (S. 764) that would preempt state GMO-labeling laws and replace them with a single labeling standard. The legislation requires a labeling system of sorts be used by food companies to alert consumers through three options: actual language on a package, a USDA-backed symbol or an electronic code that consumers could use a Smartphone to access.
The House, which passed a GMO labeling bill in 2015 that would make any labeling voluntary, will now take up the Senate legislation.
Why did the Senate rush S. 764A towards a vote? A handful of mostly northeastern states, led by a Vermont labeling law that went into effect on July 1, helped force its hand. Opponents say without Congress acting, mandatory labeling would lead to higher family grocery bills and a patchwork of competing state laws that would prove difficult for companies to navigate and remain in compliance.
As the rhetorical battle heated up earlier this year, some large food companies tried to stay ahead of the controversy. In January, the Campbell Soup Company said it would begin using GMO labels. Shortly thereafter, General Mills, Mars Food, Kellogg and ConAgra announced they’d follow suit.
Shortly before the Senate vote, Ross Pifer, Clinical Professor of Law at Penn State Law, spoke with Delta Farm Press. Among his comments:
On S. 764A…
“There’s a new proposal — commonly referred to as a compromise proposal — being offered by (Kansas Sen. Pat) Roberts and (Michigan Sen. Debbie) Stabenow. It would take a slightly different approach to labeling proposals discussed in the past.
“This new proposal would mandate a form of labeling and would provide the manufacturers some options in terms of how they’d accomplish the labeling. For example, they might be able to use a telephone number, a website or a QR code on the item being sold rather than have all the information contained on the label.
“So, while labeling of a sort would be mandated it wouldn’t do what a lot of proponents of GM labels have wanted all along: the information on the label itself. This proposal would provide consumers with the means of getting the info but not directly.
“If this Senate proposal becomes law should what it requires be called ‘labeling’? Perhaps the word ‘disclosure’ is more accurate.”
On preemption of state labeling laws…
“The second part of the legislation is it would provide for preemption over state laws. That means the Vermont statute or any other state GM labeling statutes would be preempted.
“The Vermont statute became effective on July 1. However, there’s an implementation period and the Vermont attorney general indicated last week there’d be a grace period before the state law is to be enforced. The citizen suit provision of the Vermont law, which provides for citizens to file suit, doesn’t become effective until a year from now.”
What if the consumer doesn’t have access to the needed technology to access the company’s labeling information?
“There is a requirement for the USDA to do a study to look at some of those types of issues. They’re looking for any technological barriers this statute might have. A provision in the legislation says the study must be completed in one year after the statute is enacted.
“There is also a requirement that regulations be promulgated to implement the statute.”
What do you think will be the response of the companies that have already said they’ll be putting GMO info on the actual label?
“Of those companies, I’ve not seen any statements indicating they’ll backtrack. Based on the provisions in the law, though, it would be easy for them to say, ‘yeah, we’ll disclose but it’ll be through a QR code or a section on our website.’ They could argue that is in the same spirit of their earlier pledge to place the info on the actual product package.”
Any noise about possible state workarounds?
“I think that would be difficult because of the preemption language. The mobilization taking place is focused on the federal legislation. The groups in opposition to the Senate bill are ramping up their criticism and lobbying lawmakers.”
From your perspective is this a good compromise?
“It does provide ways to get the information. For those who want the information, they could obtain it.
“One of the goals of some proponents of labeling has been to mandate the GM information be on the product so that consumers who may not have a strong opinion about it would make a decision not to purchase the product. The Senate bill, by providing alternative methods for companies, doesn’t accomplish all the goals the labeling proponents would like. Proponents want the GM information to be right in front of consumers.”