UPDATE: Congress passes mandatory labeling bill for genetically engineered foods

UPDATED: The House has passed the Senate-approved bipartisan labeling bill, which will require mandatory disclosure of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Obama. The comments below were collected after the compromise bill was agreed upon in the Senate. The bill lets food manufacturers choose which method they use for disclosure, allowing for industry-favored QR codes which can be scanned by a smartphone. It will supersede the Vermont labeling law, which went into effect July 1st.

 

New comment on Congress passing the bill:

Dr. Joyce Van Eck, Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute (webpage):

Expertise: Biotechnological approaches to the study of gene function and crop improvement.

“Bill S.764 was crafted to provide consumers options for accessing information about the food they purchase while providing a uniform set of standards for this information as opposed to it being done on a state-by-state basis.  The bill defines genetically engineered or “bioengineering” in relation to food based on two aspects: 1) introduction of genetic material that was modified according to in vitro recombinant DNA techniques; and 2) a modification that was not a result of conventional breeding or found in nature.

“In his remarks*, which I encourage people listen to, Senator Roberts outlines the benefits of this bill and the importance of not increasing the price of food even more as a result of labelling.  A key outcome of this bill will be a set of standards to follow to provide information in a balanced way that does not contribute further to stigmatization of foods or food components that have come through the process of bioengineering.

“Being that this is a bipartisan proposal that takes into consideration how best to address concerns of consumers, farmers, and the food industry, it should be a straightforward decision for President Obama to sign the bill to become law.”

*Senator Roberts remarks: http://www.roberts.senate.gov/video/7-7-16%20Biotech%20Floor%20Speech.mp4

 

The comments below do not reflect passage in the Senate or House:

Dr. William Hallman, Chair of the Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University (webpage):

Expertise: Public perceptions of controversial issues concerning food, health, and the environment, including consumer perceptions and behaviors concerning genetically modified foods.

“Like all pieces of legislation, the provisions of this bill are open to interpretation and the devil is in the details.  The wording of the bill is both rather specific and ambiguous at the same time.  The key is the definition of ‘bioengineering’ in Section 291. As written, this definition would exclude any genetic modifications that don’t involve recombinant techniques. So, for example, the new technique of gene editing called CRISPR would not qualify.

“Further, according to the definition, the food must contain genetic material i.e. DNA.  This requirement would presumably exclude ingredients made from genetically modified crops that are then refined to remove DNA.  This would include commonly used ingredients such as refined sugar from GM sugar beets, corn syrup from GM corn, and oil from GM canola. 

“Another key provision of the bill indicates in Section 293 that the form of disclosure is at the discretion of the food manufacturer, and that one of the acceptable forms of disclosure would be a QR code that could be scanned using a smart phone, or an in-store scanner. It is interesting that this proposed solution would theoretically give consumers the ability to know whether their food is ‘bioengineered’, for which ‘right to know’ advocates have been actively pushing. On the other hand, packages would not have to bear special labels such as those required by the Vermont law (Act 120). Our data and that of others suggests that a label saying that a product was ‘produced with genetic engineering’, as the Vermont law requires, is likely to be seen by consumers as an indication that the product is undesirable.

 “The QR code solution also creates the potential for manufacturers to disclose other attributes of their products. In our 2013 study, we asked participants to rate how important it was to them to have various kinds of information on food labels. In response, 59% said that it was very or extremely important to have information about whether the product contains GM. This is a slightly lower percentage that indicated that it was similarly important to have information about whether the product was grown using hormones (63%), pesticides (62%), or antibiotics (61%), whether it was grown or raised in the United States (60%), and whether the product contains allergens (59%). A QR code might also be valuable in identifying products that are recalled for safety or other reasons.”

For further comments from Dr Hallman regarding an earlier version of the bill, see: http://geneticexperts.org/senate-to-vote-on-national-voluntary-gmo-labeling-standard/

 

Dr. Gary Marchant, Regents’ Professor of Law, Arizona State University (webpage): 

Expertise: Use of genetic information in environmental regulation, risk and the precautionary principle, legal aspects of personalized medicine, and regulation of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, neuroscience and biotechnology.

If we are going to have mandatory GMO labeling in the United States, the proposed bill by Senators Roberts and Stabenow is about as rational and reasonable as it can get. 

“There are several redeeming features of this bill.  First, it sets a national standard and preempts inconsistent state and local labeling requirements.  Given that many food products are distributed and marketed nationwide, it is nonsensical to have a small, outlier state like Vermont set national labeling policy.  Second, the bill provides flexibility on how foods are labeled, including permitting the use of digital codes that will allow concerned consumers to find out the information they want, without feeding into the scaremongering and boycott potential that mandatory written labels on the products would facilitate.   Third, the bill appears to exempt promising new food improvement technologies such as gene editing and RNA interference from the labeling requirement, as the labeling requirement is limited to foods modified by in vitro recombinant DNA techniques used to produce foods that could not be obtained through conventional breeding.   Finally, unlike some earlier GMO labeling bills introduced in Congress that had unrealistic zero tolerance requirements even for inadvertent GM content, the Roberts-Stabenow compromise calls for a threshold for labeling to be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture. 

“To be sure, a mandatory labeling law, even one as reasonable as this, is problematic in that it can still stigmatize GM foods, will impose extra costs on the food system for tracking and identifying GM ingredients, and will create new liability traps for products that inadvertently contain GM ingredients above the threshold level.  Nevertheless, by resolving the contentious GM labeling controversy, which had been used as a lever by anti-GMO forces to attack GMO foods more generally (and inappropriately), this new bill if enacted should put the U.S. on a path to a more reasonable and harmonious biotechnology policy.”

 

 

Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

None declared.

 

Reference:

Approved bill: https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s764/BILLS-114s764eas.pdf

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