Late Thursday night, the Senate voted 63-30 to approve a bipartisan GMO disclosure bill hammered out earlier by 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 moves to the House of Representatives, which has only until July 15 to act before going out on recess. The House passed a similar bill (H.R. 1599) last year, although that legislation would have established a voluntary national standard.

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. Senators Roberts and Stabenow supported the legislation in order to acknowledge the proven safety of agriculture biotechnology products, and to 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 under the Agricultural Marketing Act because the labeling mandate is based on a desire to enhance consumer information, not any safety concerns.

The Roberts-Stabenow legislation would direct USDA to establish through rulemaking a uniform national disclosure standard for food that is, or may be, bioengineered. It 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 disclosure requirements would not apply to food served in restaurants or similar retail food establishments or to very small food manufacturers. Additionally, the legislation would prohibit the Secretary of Agriculture from considering any food that is derived from an animal to be considered 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 Senate vote came just a week after Vermont’s GMO labeling law took effect. In 2014, Vermont became 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. 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 Roberts-Stabenow bill.