WASHINGTON, June 23, 2016 - A landmark Senate agreement on national disclosure standards for genetically engineered foods would allow companies to disclose GMO ingredients through digital codes rather than on-package language or symbols.

The agreement, reached between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, also would use a narrow definition of genetic engineering that would exempt the newest biotech methods such as gene editing from the national disclosure standards.

Both the definition and the option for digital codes rather than on-package labeling represent major victories for farm interests, biotech developers and food companies that have long resisted mandatory GMO labeling out of fear that it would stigmatize the technology.

The legislation, which will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, would nullify Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which takes effect July 1, and would bar any other state from enacting labeling requirements that differ from the federal standards. 

Under the legislation, most food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients through either a digital, smartphone code, the industry’s preference, or through an on-package symbol or language that the Agriculture Department would approve. The code would be accompanied by: “Scan here for more food information.”

Small companies would have the option of putting a phone number or website URL on labels instead of the digital code.

The Vermont law requires products with biotech ingredients to be labeled as produced or partially produced with genetic engineering. Such text would be optional under the Roberts-Stabenow deal.

The definition of genetic engineering, or “bioengineering,” would be restricted to traits that were developed through recombinant DNA techniques, which involve transferring a gene from one organism to another, and couldn't "be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” The language is intended to ensure that techniques such as RNA interference and gene editing would be exempt, according to sources. 

Roberts said the disclosure system would protect biotech products from being denigrated by opponents. “We saved agricultural biotechnology,” said Roberts. 

Stabenow called the bill a “win for consumers and families. For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

USDA issued a statement applauding the agreement. “It is our hope that their colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives recognize the difficulty of their work, and the importance of creating a path forward. The most impressive outcome of their agreement is that this measure encompasses over 24,000 more products than the Vermont law, which should assure people that this measure can be transparent without sending the wrong message about the safety of their food options.” 

The agreement is the result of months of on-and-off negotiations that followed the failure of a committee-passed bill to pass the Senate in March when a motion to advance the measure failed, 48-49, well short of the 60-vote majority needed.

The big question now, besides whether there will be enough Democratic support for the agreement, is when the Senate and House will act on it. The Senate is unlikely to vote on the legislation until next month because it is tied up with pending appropriations bills, aides said. Both chambers are out of session after the middle of July for the national party conventions and the annual August recess. 

The House, which is on break until July 5, must approve the legislation since it differs dramatically from the bill that chamber passed last July.

Other key aspects of the agreement:

-The standards would become mandatory after USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service finalizes a rule laying out the disclosure requirements, including the optional on-package text and symbol. AMS would have two years to write the rule.

-USDA would be required to survey the availability of scanning devices and the internet and provide additional disclosure options if officials determine that shoppers “would not have sufficient access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital” methods.

-Food manufacturers defined as “very small” would be exempt from the disclosure requirement entirely. AMS would define the thresholds for small and very small businesses. The Food and Drug Administration sets those thresholds at $10 million and $1 million for nutrition labeling. Restaurants also would be exempt.

-Meat and dairy products wouldn’t be considered GMOs just because the animals were fed GMO feed, and products such as pizza where meat is the lead ingredient also would be exempt even if there is a minor biotech ingredient such as high fructose corn syrup. Animals such as salmon that are genetically engineered would fall under the disclosure requirements.

-USDA would have no authority to require recalls of products that don’t comply with the labeling requirements, and there would be no federal penalties for violations. States, however, could impose fines for violations of the standards under state consumer protection rules.

The bill also includes a provision sought by the organic industry that could help broaden support for the legislation: Products that are certified organic by USDA could be labeled as non-GMO. 

The Organic Trade Association applauded the bill, saying it “would for the first time require mandatory GMO labeling nationwide.

This legislation includes provisions that are excellent for organic farmers and food makers – and for the millions of consumers who choose organic every day – because they recognize, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the market place, OTA said.

The relatively tight definition of “bioengineering” that is in the labeling bill would not affect other federal regulations for biotechnology.

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The House voted 275-150 last July to approve its Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), which, in addition to preempting state biotech labeling requirements, would set up a process for labeling foods as non-GMO, a provision left out of the Senate agreement. Some 45 Democrats voted for the bill, while 12 Republicans opposed it.

The Senate agreement also omits a provision of the House bill that would require FDA to define the use of the word “natural” on food labels but would leave it to the agency whether to allow genetically engineered ingredients.

Stabenow was long the key to the deal because of the 60-vote requirement for moving legislation in the Senate. She has long supported preempting state labeling laws but insisted that there be some kind of mandatory disclosure requirement. Roberts’ negotiating leverage was limited because of the looming Vermont law and the decision by major food companies to begin complying with it. In the end, however, he cut a deal that largely met their priorities.

To read the bill, click here