Should Americans know if their food contains genetically modified organisms? That is the central question of a debate that has consumed activists, scientists, lawmakers, and lobbyists for much of the past few years. Senate Republicans have been fighting for a way to kill a Vermont state law that requires food manufacturers to label products that contain GMOs. This bill passed a committee hearing earlier this week. Meanwhile, Democrats who oppose the Republican's so-called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFE) have proposed their own bill. According to the Hill, the new Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of genetically modified organisms on a product's Nutrition Fact Panel.
Where did this all begin?
In 2014, when Vermont passed a law requiring food produced in the state to be labeled if it contained GMOs, it set off a timer for lawmakers and lobbyists in Washington. Those regulations go into effect this July.
Earlier this week, a bill introduced last winter that would pre-empt any state laws regarding food labeling set off alarm bells in Washington after it passed in a committee vote 14-6. If it passes on the Senate floor, SAFE will make the labeling of GMOs on food items voluntary and up to the USDA to enforce, not the states, effectively disabling Vermont's bill.
According to Politico, though SAFE passed a committee hearing, Senate Democrats were at odds over the messaging in the bill. Senate Republicans are pro the optional GMO labeling bill, and it has the backing of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a lobbying group funded by national trade associations like the American Beverage Association, American Frozen Food Institute, and the National Corn Growers Association, organizations which do not want to label food items that contain GMOs.
Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted to pass the bill but told reporters she doubted it would address the concerns of voters who have been following this issue. "We're also in many ways telling these consumers who have activists at the grassroots that they don't need to know," she said, "That we know better than they do about the kind of information they need about what's in their food. That's a tough sell. It's a tough sell in a political environment where people think that this Washington D.C. doesn't listen to them."
The Democrats' new proposal requires manufactures to label food items that contain GMOs but gives Big Food a few options: They can print "genetically engineered" next to a specific ingredient; identify GMOs with an asterisk; or label the item with a catch-all statement such as "produced with genetic engineering" ingredients. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told the press, "There is a way to give consumers the information they are asking for without placing unfair or conflicting requirements on food producers. This legislation provides the common-sense pathway forward." Republicans are expected to fight it.
As the AP notes, though Vermont's law doesn't kick in until July, food manufacturers need to start making decisions about how they will label their products — or move manufacturing plants out of the state — now. For the past year and a half, one of Vermont's biggest food manufacturers, Ben & Jerry's, has been labeling its products as containing no GMOs. And Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of the ice cream company now owned by Unilever, has been campaigning for more transparency in food labeling laws. He is in support of the Democrat's new Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act.