The US House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would change the way companies label genetically-engineered (GE) foods sold in this country, often referred to as GMOs.
The bill directs the Department of Agriculture to write rules establishing a national standard for how GE products are labelled. Companies will be allowed to use text, symbols or a QR code to let consumers know about GE ingredients in their products.
A federal labelling law would nullify Vermont’s existing GMO labelling law, which is seen as more stringent than the rules proposed by the current bill, and prevent individual states from writing their own laws regulating the labels on genetically engineered foods.
Representatives passed the bill with a 306 to 117 vote. Since it already cleared the Senate last week, it will become law pending President Barack Obama’s signature. Obama is not expected to veto the law.
Some Democrats and consumer advocates argue that the law does not go far enough in requiring companies to disclose GE ingredients. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), ranking member on the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee, made this case on the House floor.
“The debate about GMO labelling is about transparency and the right of every American to know what’s in the food they eat,” he said. “It’s very simple. The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.” (Many Americans do not own smartphones, which are needed to scan and understand QR codes.)
Republicans, for their part, have argued that a national labelling standard falls in line with science and best practices for government regulation. Consumer Reports notes that the bill has also received support from industry groups, like the National Corn Growers Association.
In remarks emailed to Tech Insider, William Hallman, chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, noted that the bill as written only applies to particular “recombinant forms of genetic engineering, and might exclude products with genes edited using CRISPR or other methods.” He also noted that products that don’t include DNA, like sugar or olive oil, might not require labelling.
It remains unclear, he wrote, how exactly this law will impact consumer attitudes toward GE foods:
It is interesting that this proposed solution would theoretically give consumers the ability to know whether their food is ‘bioengineered’, for which ‘right to know’ advocates have been actively pushing. On the other hand, packages would not have to bear special labels such as those required by the Vermont law (Act 120). Our data and that of others suggests that a label saying that a product was ‘produced with genetic engineering’, as the Vermont law requires, is likely to be seen by consumers as an indication that the product is undesirable.
In other words, a national labelling standard might be a blessing for companies worried that existing state labels make their products look dangerous to customers.
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