July 23, 2015

House Passes Voluntary GMO Labeling Bill

The U.S. is a step closer to enacting a consistent, national approach to certifying and labeling genetically modified (GMO) foods. On July 23, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would establish a voluntary labeling framework for GMO and non-GMO foods.

The legislation would pre-empt any current or future state laws that mandate labeling for GMO foods, including laws already passed by Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. As a result, food manufacturers would no longer confront the potential burden of complying with 50 different GMO labeling requirements in 50 states. The legislation also establishes a voluntary certification system at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for labeling foods as “GMO” or “non-GMO,” and requires manufacturers to notify the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of new GMO traits used in food products. The bill also requires FDA to establish a definition for “natural” for the purposes of food labeling, and would establish that milk, eggs and meat may not be labeled as “non-GMO” unless from an animal fed non-GMO feed. 

The final vote tally was 275-150. The bill was marked up and passed last week by the House Agriculture Committee, and was brought to the floor this week after the House Energy & Commerce Committee waived its right to consider the measure. The latest version of the bill differs from previous versions in which FDA was granted primary jurisdiction over the voluntary labeling program, and would have had authority to approve new GMO traits.

The House voted on four amendments to the underlying bill, all of which were defeated:

  1. Amendment from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR-04) to require that a U.S. company or its subsidiary that labels a product as containing GMOs in any foreign country must label the equivalent product sold in the United States in the same way.
  2. Amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-02) to ensure tribal sovereignty to prohibit or restrict the cultivation of genetically engineered plants on tribal lands.
  3. Amendment from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03) to prohibit the term "natural" on food when it contains GMOs.
  4. Amendment from Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-01) to replace the bill text with only a proposal to have the Agriculture Department create a non-GMO certification program and label.

Attention now turns to the Senate, where companion legislation has yet to be introduced. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) is widely expected to be the lead sponsor when a bill is introduced. Reportedly, no Democrats have agreed to sign on as a co-sponsor, which is a primary reason for delay.

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