President Barack Obama signed into law Senate Bill 764, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, requiring food produced using a particular kind of genetic modification that cannot be duplicated through traditional cross-breeding to be labeled.
The bill was signed on July 29, 2016.
Farm groups, food companies, and the biotech industry had supported a bill earlier this summer—sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R–KS)—that would have made GMO labeling voluntary for companies, but after Roberts failed to persuade the Senate to pass his voluntary labeling bill, the groups lined up to support SB 764, a compromise bill.
Bloomberg News reports the groups would rather be held to one national standard than a complex patchwork of different state labeling laws, such as the one passed in Vermont that came into effect July 1. The federal GMO labeling bill nullifies and preempts state and local GMO food-labeling laws.
How many foods will be impacted, when the labels will start to appear, and what form they will take remain unclear.
Seventy-five percent of the food Americans consume contain genetically modified ingredients, but highly refined food products derived from genetically modified sources—such as oils made from canola, corn, or soy and syrup made from corn or sugar beets—will not have to be labeled, because they don’t fit the law’s definition of “bioengineering.”
In addition, products made from animals that consumed GMO feed—such as butter, meat, and milk—will not have to be labeled. Nor does the law require restaurants to label foods they prepare using GMO produce.
Genetically modified fresh foods are far less common than processed foods, but many will have to be labeled under the law, including genetically modified produce recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sale but that have yet to reach store shelves—including certain GMO apples, potatoes, and salmon.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two years to finalize the regulations, and it will have the power to determine how long food companies will have once the regulations are finalized before they are required to start labeling their products.
Producers will have a variety of label types to choose from. Manufacturers will have the option of providing a label with a USDA symbol, which has not yet been designed, indicating the presence of GMOs, or providing a label using plain language that states the product was produced using genetically modified ingredients. [JH1] [SB2]
The bill contains no penalties for companies that do not comply with the law, and it specifically precludes the secretary of agriculture from recalling any food subject to the law based solely on whether the food lacks a GMO label.
Studies Indicate GMOs Are Safe
Many firms, agricultural scientists, and public policy analysts have opposed mandatory labeling. They argue the presence of the label suggests to consumers GMOs may not be safe, which they say is erroneous, because every major research body that has looked into the health and safety of genetically modified crops—including the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, FDA, and USDA—have endorsed their use.
A May 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined GMO crops are safe and could also be better for people’s health and the environment.
Congress Usurps States’ Rights
Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agriculture policy at The Heritage Foundation, says although the food industry’s concerns about costs linked to complying with multiple states’ GMO-labeling laws are legitimate, it does not justify national a mandatory labeling bill.
“Congress, once again, took a bad situation and made it worse,” said Bakst. “GMO foods on the market are as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. Simply labeling them and making them appear different in some way gives the public the impression they are not.
“The food industry had a legitimate concern regarding labeling costs connected to the Vermont law, but these costs pale in comparison to the much bigger problems [caused by] the federal government requiring mandatory GMO labeling nationwide, which provides legitimacy to mandatory labeling and the notion that there is something wrong with genetically engineered foods.
“If the burden of Vermont’s GMO-food-labeling law was so bad, food manufacturers could have simply stopped selling its food in Vermont, forcing the state’s citizens to face predictable consequences of their own bad law,” Bakst said. “There is no overly burdensome ‘patchwork’ of state laws [that are currently] justifying federal preemption through a federal mandatory labeling scheme.”
Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard,” July 29, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/national-bioengineered-food–disclosure-standard
Board on Agriculture and Resources, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, May 17, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/genetically-engineered-crops–experiences-and-prospects