The House of Representatives has voted 306-117 to approve the bipartisan GMO disclosure bill (S. 764) hammered out earlier by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The compromise measure would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to establish a mandatory National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The measure now goes to the White House, which has already indicated that it will be signed into law by the President.  

In order to prevent a patchwork of differing and conflicting national, state and local requirements, the national standard would preempt all GMO disclosure standards at the state and local levels except for those that are identical to the national standard. The legislation gained bipartisan support as a means to acknowledge the proven safety of agricultural biotechnology products and, at the same time, ensure consumers have access to more information about their food. Responsibility for implementation of the national standard would rest with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Agricultural Marketing Act because the labeling mandate is based on a desire to enhance consumer information, not any safety concerns.

The legislation directs USDA to use notice and comment rulemaking to establish a uniform national disclosure standard for food that is, or may be, bioengineered. The standard would apply to a broad category of foods intended for human consumption. The legislation provides several options for mandatory disclosure, including text on packaging, the use of a symbol, or an electronic or digital link. Additional flexibility would be provided for small food manufacturers and food in very small packages. The legislation also requires a study to identify any technological or other barriers to disclosure and, if the Secretary of Agriculture determines that barriers exist, USDA would have to offer additional and comparable disclosure options.

The disclosure requirements would not apply to food served in restaurants or similar retail food establishments or to very small food manufacturers. Additionally, USDA would be prohibited from considering any food that is derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal consumed feed produced from a bioengineered substance. Foods that have meat, poultry, or egg products as their main ingredient would remain subject to labeling under other federal statutes. The legislation would also ensure that food products certified under the national organic program can display a “non-GMO” label or other similar claim in addition to the USDA organic seal.

The House and Senate votes closely followed the July 1 effective date of Vermont’s GMO labeling law. Vermont is the first state to pass a law that requires manufacturers to label food products offered for retail sale in the state if the food is produced with genetic engineering. Upon enactment, the Roberts-Stabenow bill would preempt Vermont’s law and, according to USDA, cover thousands more food products than Vermont. All bioengineered food crops on the market today would be covered by the new national disclosure standard.