After passing the Senate last week, a bill proposing a federal labeling standard for foods with genetically modified ingredients - and blocking states from creating their own standards - sailed through the US House of Representatives on Thursday, and is now on its way to President Obama.
The bill, which passed by a landslide 306 to 117 vote, directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a national labeling standard that allows food producers to choose how they want to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients - manufacturers will be able to use text, symbols or a QR code that consumers must scan with a smartphone to relay the information.
Democrats slammed the measure, calling it anti-consumer. Critics say the bill will roll back tougher state standards and deny consumers information on their foods.
"It was at the behest of big industry that the QR code be listed as an option,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said when the debating the bill on the floor Wednesday. “Not what's in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want.”
He argued that QR codes discriminate against low-income and elderly people – those without a smartphone or Internet access.
“The debate about GMO labeling is about transparency and the right of every American to know what's in the food they eat,” McGovern said. “It's very simple. The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”
Gary Hirshberg, former president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, and chairman of the Just Label It campaign, concurs.
“The GMO labeling legislation passed by the Senate and under consideration by the House this week falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package,” Hirshberg said earlier this week. “What’s more, the compromise contains loopholes that could limit the number of products that must carry a GMO disclosure. While we support a national, mandatory GMO labeling system, the legislation passed by the Senate and under consideration by the House does not give American consumers the same simple disclosure used in 64 other nations.”
For example, the FDA has said the bill’s definition of which foods would require labeling would not include many products containing highly refined oil and sweeteners such as canola oil or high-fructose corn syrup – after processing, such ingredients contain no genetic material that would identify them as coming from a genetically engineered source, which is what the bill requires. The USDA, which will oversee GMO labeling under the new law, has disagreed with that interpretation, but many say the definition of what requires labeling and what doesn’t will ultimately end up in court.
Meanwhile, Republicans have hailed the bill as a bipartisan agreement that supports science, much of which has found GMOs to be safe.
“I believe the government should require labels when it is a matter of health of safety or to provide valuable nutritional information,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said. “It’s important that his state-by-state patchwork not disrupt the nationwide marketing of food.”
“Today’s vote is a resounding victory not only for consumers and common sense but also for the tremendous coalition of agricultural and food organizations that came together in unprecedented fashion to get this solution passed,” said Pamela G. Bailey, chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which in 2014 petitioned the chief U.S. food safety regulator and Congress to enact a single federal standard for the labeling of GMOs.
While this may be the end of the long, expensive debate over whether or not to label genetically modified foods in the U.S. – during which states such as Vermont and companies including Campbell’s, General Mills, Mars and Kellogg took it upon themselves to begin doing so – now begins the wrangling over interpreting and implementing the language of the law, which may still continue for years.
President Obama is reportedly expected to sign the legislation despite the concerns from Democrats and consumer groups.