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Biotech inclusion on Nutrition Facts label introduced in SenateBiotech inclusion on Nutrition Facts label introduced in Senate

New bill introduced by Democrats gets support from consumer groups seeking more transparency on biotech ingredients.

Jacqui Fatka

March 3, 2016

4 Min Read
Biotech inclusion on Nutrition Facts label introduced in Senate

The biotech labeling debate has another alternative on the table with a new bill from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.). It comes just a day after the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 14-6 to advance a bill from Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) on how to address labeling foods that may contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Merkley's bill would provide consumers with clear access to information about GM ingredients in foods while ensuring that food producers are not burdened by a confusing patchwork of state regulations.

Although Roberts' bill was approved out of committee with support from three Democrats, he'll need more than that for the bill to pass the full Senate. With Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on the campaign trail, he'll need more Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster.

Specifically, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act would amend the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to require food manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Panel in one of four ways:

1. Manufacturers may use a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to indicate that the ingredient is “genetically engineered.”

2. Manufacturers may identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredient list.

3. Manufacturers may simply apply a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredient list stating that the product was “produced with genetic engineering.”

4. The Food & Drug Administration would have the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers, that would clearly and conspicuously disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging. 

None of these options would require disclosures or “warning” statements on the front panel intending to disparage GM ingredients.

This legislative proposal represents a uniform federal GM labeling standard with sufficient flexibility to suit manufacturing operations of various sizes and markets while also giving national manufacturers that are in compliance with the federal standard safe harbor from the potential patchwork of state laws, according to a statement from Merkley's office.

“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. 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,” Merkley said.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.) and Jon Tester (D., Mont.).

“I believe that until a national mandatory label like this is enacted, Congress should not preempt state laws, like Vermont’s Act 120,” Leahy said of the bill. Leahy has been opposed to Roberts' bill, saying it “undermines the public's right to know” and “tramples states' rights.”

During discussion of the markup in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, Leahy said the sky is not falling and there is still time to find a solution that works. He added, “When you rush and panic to block consumers from getting access to this information, even to a tiny state like Vermont, it is saying, 'Gee, producers must have something to hide.'”

The legislation has the backing of many that have been calling for mandatory labeling, including Amy’s Kitchen, Ben & Jerry’s, Campbell’s Soup Co., Consumers Union, Just Label It and Nature’s Path.

“As a businessman, I know the value of transparency and trust. 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,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of both Just Label It and of Stonyfield Farms. “I believe Sen. 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.”

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said, “This is what real disclosure looks like. This bill finds a way to set a national standard and avoid a patchwork of state labeling laws while still giving consumers the information they want and deserve about what’s in their food. This compromise offers food companies different labeling options and ensures that all consumers – no matter where they are in the country or whether they own a smartphone – have the information they overwhelmingly say they want. We urge senators to support this proposal as they move forward on GMO labeling legislation.”

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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