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House Passes GE Labeling Bill; Obama Expected to Sign

As a parting act before its seven-week recess, the House last Thursday passed by a vote of 306-117 Senator Pat Roberts’s (R-KS) legislation (S.764) requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Already approved by the Senate last week, the bill is now expected to be signed into law by President Obama, according to a White House spokeswoman.

The bill directs the Department of Agriculture to set a standard within two years that would apply to all food labels in the U.S. The standard would permit three types of labels: a USDA-designed symbol; a written statement noting the presence of GE ingredients; and a QR code for smartphones to scan. The standard would preempt state law, including Vermont’s Act 120, which took effect July 1st.

As expected, food growers and distributors celebrated the bill’s passage, while consumer and environmental groups criticized it.  Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the bill would “give consumers more access to consistent and helpful information about genetic engineering” and also prevent “a patchwork of different state labeling laws.” Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm, countered that the bill “falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package.”

A silver lining for opponents of S. 764 is that some food companies that had instituted across-the-board food labeling in the last year are not reversing course. Campbell Soup Co. will continue labeling its products, and Mars Inc. will keep inserting text identifying the inclusion of GE ingredients in its food items. In addition, Danone SA announced Thursday that it too would label GE ingredients in its yogurts. General Mills, another one of the companies that labeled its goods in response to Vermont's Act 120, plans to wait to decide whether to continue labeling until it reviews the USDA’s labeling standard and its consumers’ preferences.

Ever if the President signs S. 764, the fight over GE labeling almost certainly won’t come to an end. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety advocacy organization, has already said that the group is weighing whether to file a lawsuit claiming the bill is discriminatory against certain groups. Regardless of that group’s decision, some sort of litigation is likely to take place, so keep monitoring Consumer Product Matters for the latest developments.

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Sam Rothbloom