Waning time and higher priorities have rendered the passage of federal genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling legislation a long shot this year despite early optimism. However, a renewed emphasis on preemptive federal legislation and talks of compromise give reason to believe bipartisan legislation could be passed in the near future, possibly even early next year.
As a bit of background, the FDA currently makes no distinction between marketing requirements for GMO and non-GMO foods. Because there is broad scientific agreement that GMO foods pose no greater health risks than non-GMO foods, federal labeling requirements were long deemed unnecessary. In fact, just last week the FDA declared genetically modified salmon to be safe and denied a petition seeking mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. However, GMO stances by companies like Chipotle and several state laws that would mandate GMO food labeling have reignited the debate. Proponents of GMO labeling mandates argue that consumers have a right to know what is in their food, whereas opponents of mandatory labeling argue that such labeling would unfairly stigmatize GMO products in the marketplace and increase costs.
Although the issue had been kept in mind by a few members of Congress, it came again to the forefront when Vermont passed a mandatory GMO labeling law set to take effect in July of 2016. Fearful of a patchwork of state laws regulating food labeling requirements, the House passed Mike Pompeo’s (R-KS) bipartisan Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act this July by a wide margin (275-150). This bill would prevent states from issuing mandatory GMO labeling requirements and would set up a federal framework under the USDA for those who wish to label their products as “GMO-free.” That bill, however, has been stalled in the Senate since.
In a renewed push, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on GMO foods in October. Due to concerns with the House bill’s ban on all GMO labeling requirements, several Senators have taken a new approach. Senators John Hoeven (R-ND), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) are currently negotiating a bipartisan middle ground. The compromise is said to require companies to include information on GMO ingredients in their product bar codes or in Quick Response (QR) codes, rather than in wording, while banning states from requiring more. Senator Stabenow said such an approach would allow for disclosure and transparency for concerned consumers without stigmatizing products unfairly. Additionally, the compromise would prevent companies from having to deal with a patchwork of state laws. Many agricultural groups have been supportive of the new approach thus far, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has stated that barcodes or QR codes could be the best compromise.
Assuming a bill is drafted and passed in the Senate by year end, it would still need to pass the House and be signed into law by the President – a tall order during a time of limited days in session and higher priorities. However, with the Vermont law going into effect next July, this talk of Senate compromise gives strong insight into what final legislation may look like and a likely timetable for its passage. It remains to be seen whether President Obama would sign a final bill that preempts the states, but the bipartisan nature of the negotiations certainly increases the odds.
Another possibility is a push to get compromise legislation tacked onto a year-end omnibus appropriations bill. Because a stand-alone bill would be unlikely to pass by year end, some lobbying efforts have started targeting the appropriations approach. However, it remains to be seen how much of an appetite Congress will have for the inclusion of policy riders in this legislation.