Could the federal government call a stop to the enactment of state laws governing the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms and order the Food and Drug Administration to establish requirements for "natural" labeling?

The answer is a solid "maybe" after the House of Representatives voted in favor of H.R. 1599 on July 23, a bill that would prevent state and local governments from enacting legislation regulating GMO labeling and require the FDA to define the term "natural" for purposes of food labeling.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (which passed by a margin of 275 to 150) directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a voluntary non-GMO food certification program to govern the labeling of such food in a "nationally uniform" manner. The legislation would allocate $2 million to initially fund the program, which would later be subsidized by user fees. The Department of Agriculture would also create a registry on its website listing all genetically engineered plants intended for use in food.

The bill would also prohibit non-GMO foods from suggesting on their labels that they are safer than GMO foods.

The proposed law will not change the current FDA requirement that producers of food made from a genetically modified plant must provide a label that explains how it is different from a non-GMO comparable food if a "functional, nutritional or compositional" difference exists. If a food producer plans to use a genetically modified plant not found on the Department of Agriculture's list, it must obtain FDA approval that the food is as safe as comparable foods.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), who sponsored the legislation, cited the potential for a confusing patchwork of state laws as part of the impetus behind the measure, as well as First Amendment concerns. In the wake of federal inaction, several states have enacted laws regulating GMO labeling, including Vermont, where the law is set to take effect next year.

Lawmakers cited the recent wave of litigation challenging "natural" advertising claims for tomato sauce, granola barsfruit juice cups, and ice cream as a compelling reason to regulate the term "natural." A formal FDA definition of the term and rules on how to use it would go a long way toward ending the lawsuits, legislators said. Currently, the agency's informal policy prohibits the use of a "natural" label for foods containing added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic ingredients.

To read H.R. 1599, click here.

Why it matters: The future of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is unknown. The bill has its opponents, and several lawmakers have argued that it creates consumer confusion as to what their food actually contains. Whether the bill will find success in the Senate remains to be seen, and President Barack Obama's position on the legislation remains unclear. A few days after the House passed the bill, two citizen petitions were filed with the FDA on GMO labeling. When asked for a comment, the White House issued a statement that the activities are "just the latest part of an ongoing conversation about how our food is produced. Stay tuned."