One week before the Vermont GMO labeling law will take effect, a bipartisan bill requiring mandatory labeling for products containing genetically modified ingredients has been agreed to by Senate AG committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS).  The bill, which would require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods, will need to be passed in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and would go into effect two years after passed.  If successful, the new law would specifically preempt all state GMO labeling laws and would prevent the feared patchwork of conflicting state labeling laws.

The bill has a narrow definition of genetic engineering — traits developed through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques, which could not be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.  It excludes food served in a restaurant and food derived from animals that consumed genetically modified feed.  The Secretary would be responsible for establishing a specific regulation setting forth the amount of a genetically modified substance that would require labeling.

Importantly, product manufacturers would not have to use the term “GMO” on the label, and would be allowed to disclose genetically modified ingredients by “text, symbol or electronic or digital link.”  The link must provide a disclosure located in a “consistent and conspicuous manner, on the first product information page that appears for the product … which shall exclude marketing and promotional information.”  Small manufacturers would be allowed to provide a phone number or website.  The bill specifies that the certification provided to organic products under the Organic Foods Production Act shall be considered sufficient to make a “non-GMO” claim, and does not reference use of the word “natural.”

The question remains as to what real effect this bill would have in the short term, given that the Vermont law requiring on-package GMO labeling takes effect in one week.  The congressional approval process can be daunting, and food manufacturers have already spent the last year intensely preparing their products to be compliant with the Vermont law.  In other words, the labels stating specifically whether or not genetically modified ingredients are contained in the food product have already been printed and are likely being shipped, if not already on the shelves of grocery stores in Vermont.  Although a federal law will provide consistency in labeling requirements in the future, the short term problem with different standards and providing consistency to consumers would continue.  Additionally, the failure to reference any standard for use of the word natural would do nothing to curtail the current flood of consumer protection litigation.  As usual, we will have to wait and see how this all plays out.