WASHINGTON, July 29, 2016 – President Barack Obama quietly signed into law legislation that prevents states from requiring on-package labeling of genetically modified ingredients, capping an historic win for farm groups, food companies and the biotech industry.

The Senate gave final congressional approval to the measure on July 14 with backing from a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts called the bill the most important farm legislation in 20 years. USDA has already formed a working group to write rules needed to implement the legislation.

The bill was one of 20 the president signed into law late on a Friday afternoon. Most of the other measures were bills officially naming Post Office facilities.

The Agriculture Department, which is charged with implementing the disclosure standard, issued a statement saying that a working group has already been working  to “develop a timeline for rulemaking and to ensure an open and transparent process for effectively establishing this new program. We are committed to providing multiple opportunities for engagement, and will have more information about this very soon.” 

AMS has already established a website for the new biotech program. 

The biotech bill mandates disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients but will allow companies to do it through scannable smartphone codes as an alternative to on-package text or symbol. The legislation is intended to nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which went into effect July 1 and has already forced major companies to start disclosing GMO ingredients on product packages.

Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said the coalition of 1,100 food and agriculture groups that pushed for passage of the legislation would press USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to implement the law “in line with congressional intent.” 

The law provides what supporters intended to be a narrow definition of biotechnology that would exclude new techniques such as gene editing and highly refined ingredients such as vegetable oil and sugar. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said the legislation will “open a new era for transparency in ingredient information for consumers…”

“Its consistent national standard is far better than a costly and confusing patchwork of different state labeling,” Pam Bailey, GMA’s president and CEO, said today in a release. “The president’s signing of this legislation stops, effective immediately, Vermont’s mandatory on-package labeling law that … already has left consumers in the state with fewer products on the shelves and higher compliance costs for small businesses.”

Clay Hough, senior group vice president and legal counsel for the International Dairy Foods Association, said the law “will bring much-needed consistency to the marketplace.”

Many companies, including Pepsi, Mars, Dannon, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Nestle  have already started labeling products because of the Vermont law, and Consumers Union urged them to continue doing so. Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, opposed the federal law. 

“Companies have already done the work of determining which products have GMO ingredients, and have incurred the expense of changing product packaging to include the required words.  These companies have been extremely forward thinking in responding to consumer needs—nine out of ten consumers surveyed have said they would like this information on the package, ” said Jean Halloran, director of CU’s food policy initiatives.

The law was the result of weeks of negotiations between Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. 

“Mandatory, nationwide GMO labeling is now the law of the land and that should be celebrated by all those who worked so hard to ensure that all consumers have more information about their food,” said Stabenow.

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House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said earlier this month that state labeling laws like Vermont's “threaten to increase …  consumer confusion and food costs while interfering with interstate commerce.”

For lawmakers from both parties, the bill was a flawed compromise, either because it will require disclosure of GMOs or because it didn't mandate the on-package labeling that typically gets strong support in consumer polls.

But food and agriculture interests nationwide were united in their support for the bill, which had the support of the Organic Trade Association as well as the conventional industry that relies on biotechnology. The Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played a key role, too, in helping develop the bill as a way to end the long-running controversy over GMO labeling and provide some certainty for the future of biotechnology.

(Updated July 30 with the URL for the AMS website.)