Senate vote on bill for labeling genetically engineered food

UPDATE: The bill failed to get the 60 votes required to pass.

The U.S. Senate vote today on a bill that would set a national standard for voluntary labeling of genetically engineered foods with ‘SmartLabels’; codes which consumers can scan with a phone to access more information. The bill would block states from passing labeling laws unless they comply with the voluntary standard, including Vermont’s law due to go into effect July 1, and would require manufacturers to label 70% of foods within two years of regulations coming into force or face mandatory labeling.


Dr. Alan McHughen, CE Biotechnology Specialist and Geneticist, University of California, Riverside (webpage):

Expertise:  Crop improvement and environmental sustainability; regulations governing the safety of genetically engineered crops and foods.

“One of the problems with labeling is the lack of clear definitions. Of the countries currently enforcing mandatory GE food labeling (such as EU), they refer to GM and GMO without clearly defining exactly what a GM food is. The  EU legal definition defined under EC90/220 a quarter century ago is factually wrong in stating the GM food/crop containing genes from different species ‘could not occur in nature’ as we now know that sweet potatoes are naturally occurring GMOs, containing bacterial genes placed there by mother nature with no help from humans. 

“Hundreds of species are known to carry genes originating in other species (including humans!), so the mere fact that scientists can transfer a gene from one species to another does not make it ‘unnatural’ or unsafe. The sweet potato example, discovered just last year, didn’t shock any plant scientists that I know of, but it rattled EU bureaucrats.

“Similarly, the Senate text says (at Section 291 (1) (B)): ‘for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.’

“I know of no credible scientist who would be so arrogant as to claim to know the bounds of nature. As far as I can tell, the Senate bill definition will exempt virtually everything, as I am not aware of any bioengineered crop or food that could not be similarly modified through conventional breeding or found in nature.

“At the same time, I appreciate the desire to compromise on food labeling. However, we already have FDA labeling rules that work fine. These USDA rules will add nothing of substance and only confuse consumers. And they will fail to appease those demanding GE process-based food labels.”


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 other 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 important. It is both rather specific and ambiguous at the same time.  The key is the definition of ‘bioengineering’ in Section 291:

BIOENGINEERING. – The term ‘bioengineering’, and any similar term, as determined by the Secretary, with respect to a food, refers to a food –

(A)         That contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and

(B)         For which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.

“As written, this definition would exclude any genetic modifications that don’t involve recombinant techniques. So, for example, it would exclude the use of mutation breeding, where seeds are exposed to chemicals or radiation designed to create mutations. The new technique of gene editing called CRISPR would also not qualify because the modification isn’t performed in vitro.

“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.  It would also seem to exclude other ingredients produced using genetically modified yeasts or bacteria, but which don’t include DNA such as vitamins, alcohol and chyomsin (used to make cheese).

“What is important is that, based on our data, most Americans have very little knowledge concerning the science of ‘bioengineering’ and would therefore be unaware of the implications of the definition in the proposed legislation.  In fact, in our data 25% of Americans say they have never really heard of genetic modification or genetic engineering, and fully half say they know little or nothing about it.

“The choice of the term ‘bioengineering’ in the legislation is also significant. It is worth noting that the bill appears to give the Secretary of Agriculture some discretion as to what term would be used on a label to indicate foods that meet the definition.  In Europe and Asia, the term ‘genetically modified’ is required as part of labeling.  The term ‘genetic engineering’ would be required by the Vermont legislation due to go into effect in July, and is the term that has been included in all the state ballot initiatives voted on in the United States and almost all of the legislation proposed at the state level.

“The crucial point is that what you call the technology is important. Our past data has shown that the difference between calling it ‘agricultural biotechnology’ and ‘genetic engineering’ (GE) or ‘genetic modification’ (GM) is significant.  GE and GM result in much more negative reactions from consumers, and much lower rates of approval for products produced through these techniques.”

(Further analysis of the bill by Dr. Hallman is available here:


Dr. Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison (webpage):

Expertise: Public and expert attitudes toward emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, GMOs, synthetic biology, nuclear energy and fracking.

“The key argument that many proponents of labeling put forth is the fact that a vast majority of the public allegedly supports labeling.  The tricky part is that the numbers are much less clear-cut than it initially seems.  In fact, an Oklahoma State University survey* last year showed that 4 in 5 Americans (80%) support ‘mandatory labels on foods containing DNA’.   In other words, even labeling that is absolutely nonsensical will get fairly high levels of support.  More importantly, a survey** by Rutgers found that levels of support for GM labeling are as high as support for labeling of a lot of other ingredients or modifications:

‘[R]esearchers asked respondents 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 ingredients on a label. This is about the same percentage who 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%).’

Finally, and maybe most importantly, there is a high likelihood of the public using the mere presence of official government statements about safety as an indication that there is a reason to be worried. There’s some older data on this, coming from the food industry itself.  In 1989, the Food Marketing Institute asked shoppers who consider irradiated foods to be a hazard (66%) to compare foods with labels stating that irradiation levels meet government safety standards with unlabelled irradiated foods. Only one in three respondents (37%) said that they would find labeled foods less hazardous.  31% saw labeled irradiated food as hazardous as if there were no label, and 24% saw them as more hazardous.”




Dr. Brandon McFadden, Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Florida (webpage):

Expertise: Consumer behavior, food choice, and attitudes towards contemporary agriculture production.

“A voluntary label option already exists through the “Non-GMO Verified” seal.  The Straus Family Creamery became the first company to carry a voluntary label in 2007 from the Non-GMO Project—a third party that specializes in verification—and now there are more than 27,000 verified products.

“Tax payers should question why Congress feels it necessary to waste resources creating a legislative measure for which the market responded to nearly 10 years ago.  The answer to that question may be that this is really more of a foot in the door to a mandatory label than a measure for voluntary labeling.  The wording of the bill indicates that a mandatory label will be established if there is not satisfactory participation after two years.  Satisfactory participation is defined by the bill as at least 70 percent.  Seventy percent of participation is far from voluntary participation. 

“Moreover, the bill does not establish a threshold for the amount of bioengineered substance that may be present in order for a food to require a label. The lack of specificity for a threshold is worrisome, as it will surely have implications for segregation costs of bioengineered and non-bioengineered foods and future litigation of false claims, intentional or not.”


Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

None declared



The bill as being debated in the Senate:


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