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Senate Agriculture Committee Reaches Bipartisan Agreement on GM Labeling

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The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee announced on June 23 that it has reached a bipartisan agreement that would establish a national disclosure standard for genetically modified (GM) foods and preempt conflicting state laws, including Vermont’s GM labeling law that becomes effective on July 1, 2016.  If enacted, the bill would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish and administer a national disclosure standard for GM foods. 

In developing the national GM disclosure standard, USDA would have the authority to determine the amount of GM material that may be present for the food to be considered a GM food and establish a process by which one can request a determination as to whether a food is GM.  Food manufacturers could choose from several disclosure options, including the use of text, symbols, or electronic/digital links. Small food manufacturers would be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements. Furthermore, the bill prescribes exemptions from disclosure for:  (1) products derived from animals that consume GM feed; (2) food sold by restaurants and similar retail food establishments; and (3) very small food manufacturers. 

The GM labeling requirements would only apply to a food that is subject to labeling requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act); the Federal Meat Inspection; the Poultry Products Inspection Act; or the Egg Products Inspection Act if: 1) the most predominate ingredient of that food would independently be subject to the FD&C Act labeling requirements or 2) the most predominant ingredient of the food is broth, stock, water, or a similar solution and the second the most predominate ingredient of that food would independently be subject to the FD&C Act labeling requirements.

In a press release on the bill, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, stated, “Unless we act now, Vermont law denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace is the law of the land. Our marketplace – both consumers and producers – needs a national biotechnology standard to avoid chaos in interstate commerce.” 

In technical comments on the proposed legislation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that it has a long-held policy position that the use of GE in the production of food has not presented any safety concerns for such foods as a class, and therefore “the use of GE techniques in the production of food is not a material fact that must be disclosed on the labeling of food products.” However, the Agency expressed concerns about potential conflicts between FDA labeling requirements and USDA’s implementing regulations for the proposed legislation, such as allowing information regarding the GE content of food to be presented only in an electronically accessible form and not on the package label, and labeling requirements for small packages.

Since the House of Representatives is on recess until July 5, the agreement cannot become law before Vermont’s law takes effect.