The United States Senate passed a controversial bill Wednesday that would require food makers to disclose genetically modified food ingredients—at least, sort of. The version of the bill passed this week outlines a compromise that would allow companies to avoid printing “contains GMOs” on food packaging, in lieu of a digital QR code that links to a disclaimer or, for smaller companies, simply a phone number or website. This weaker version of a nationwide mandatory GMO labeling is being considered a big win for biotech engineering firms, agricultural interests, and food companies that have spent millions to block GMO-labeling legislation.
The bill invalidates Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which went into effect July 1, and also blocks other states from enacting their own labeling requirements. The federal bill has drawn criticism far and wide, after food industry giants like Monsanto and Whole Foods made hefty financial contributions to senators backing the bill. In total, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates food and biotech companies have spent more than $100 million to fight mandatory GMO labeling, donating to politicians who would negotiate weaker requirements. Visitors to the Senate dropped $2,000 in cash on the Senate floor to protest the weak bill.
Under the Senate bill, a narrow definition of GMO food ingredients would subject fewer products to the labeling requirement. Vermont’s law called for all foods containing biotech ingredients to disclose them on packaging, while the Senate bill makes it optional for companies to identify ingredients produced via genetic engineering, or “bioengineering.” Techniques such as RNA interference and gene editing would be exempt from labeling requirements.
With final approval in the Senate, the federal GMO labeling bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration, where it is expected to pass. President Obama’s signature will be all that remains to put the new law into action. Although he has long promised mandatory GMO labeling, it’s unclear whether he would sign this version of the requirement.