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New GMO Food Labeling Legislation Introduced

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), along with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would they say would enable shoppers to find GMO ingredient labeling on food packaging while ensuring that food producers aren’t subject to confusing or conflicting labeling requirements in different parts of the country.

According to its sponsors, The Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act would allow U.S. consumers to see whether a food product has been prepared with genetically modified (GM) ingredients, while offering food manufacturers various options for including this information on or near the ingredients list. The senators say that the framework meets the needs of consumers, whom polls indicate overwhelmingly favor such labeling, and producers, which are concerned that a patchwork of state labeling laws would be not only expensive and hard to comply with, but also confusing for consumers.   

The legislation has been positioned as an alternative to a Senate Agriculture Committee bill that Merkley, Leahy, Tester – himself a farmer – and Feinstein contend would hide ingredient information from consumers by overturning state GMO labeling laws. Merkley is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, on which Senators Tester, Leahy and Feinstein also sit. Additionally, Leahy is a past chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and his home state has already passed its own labeling law, which would be pre-empted by the Ag Committee bill if it were enacted.

“Rather than blocking consumers’ access to information they want, the U.S. Senate should move forward with a solution that works for businesses and consumers alike,” noted Merkley. “There is a way to give consumers the information they are asking for without placing unfair or conflicting requirements on food producers. This legislation provides the commonsense pathway forward.”

Specifically, the act would amend the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel in one of four ways: 

  1. They can use a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to show that it’s “genetically engineered.”
  2. They can identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredient list.
  3. They can apply a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredient list that the product was “produced with genetic engineering.” 
  4. The FDA would have the authority to create a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers, that would clearly and conspicuously disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging. 

None of the options would require front-panel disclosures or “warning” statements with the intent to disparage GM ingredients.

Additionally, the bill would provide regulatory certainty to national food manufacturers, as it offers a uniform Federal GM labeling standard with enough flexibility to suit manufacturing operations of various sizes and markets, while also granting national manufacturers complying with the federal standard safe harbor from the potential patchwork of state laws.  

The legislation has been endorsed by Campbell Soup Co., which recently announced its support for manadatory GMO labeling; Amy’s Kitchen; Ben and Jerry’s, Consumers Union; Just Label It, Nature’s Path and the Environmental Working Group.

“The legislation reflects Campbell’s support for mandatory national standards for labeling of foods made with GMOs,” said Kelly D. Johnston, VP of government affairs for Camden, N.J.-based Campbell. “We applaud Senator Jeff Merkley and his colleagues for responding to consumers’ desire for the information they seek in a consistent and transparent manner.”

“Consumers are demanding the right to know more about their food and how it’s grown, and so far, the response from Congress and many companies has been to keep them in the dark,” noted Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and chairman of Stonyfield Farms. “I believe Senator Merkley’s bill is the kind of proposal that could bridge the divide between consumers and food companies on the issue of GMO labeling. This bill will give consumers the information they want, while allowing manufacturers the flexibility they say they need to implement mandatory, on-package labeling.”

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