Congress Passes Bill Outlawing Vermont’s GMO Labels, Replacing Them With Barcodes

After skipping over the entire debate and amendment process the Senate, and then going virtually un-discussed in the House of Representatives, a last ditch effort to overturn Vermont’s new food labeling requirement is destined for the President’s desk.

By a vote of 306-117 that did not reflect the usual “party line” voting seen on many recent pieces of legislation, the bill easily won approval by the full House this afternoon.

The Vermont law, which went into effect July 1, requires that many foods containing genetically modified (GMO) or genetically engineered (GE) ingredients include the simple one-sentence declaration of being “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering.”

However, only days before that rule kicked in, Sen. Pat Roberts (KS) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) — who have received a total of more than $2.1 million in campaign contributions this cycle from agribusiness donors — introduced “compromise” legislation that has the ostensible purpose of eventually (as in years from now) creating a national labeling standard, but which has the immediate effect of outlawing Vermont’s labeling rules.

Rather than have the bill go through the usual process of holding hearings, debating the issue, and amending and marking up the legislation in committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the bill by simply copy/pasting its text into the empty shell of a bill that had already been passed by the Senate, but not enacted into law.

This act made sure that the unamended text was presented to the full Senate, where it passed easily last week by a vote of 63-30.

In addition to outlawing the Vermont rules — which had led companies like Campbell Soup, Mars Inc., PepsiCo, Nestlé, and General Mills to start labeling their products nationwide — the Roberts/Stabenow bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture to take the next two years or so to eventually come up with a national labeling standard.

It’s that potential standard — if it ever comes to fruition — that has critics concerned about the legislation.

According to the text of the bill, food producers would not actually need to disclose GE ingredients on their packaging. Instead, they would be allowed to simply print a website address where customers could get more information. The least transparent option involves the use of barcodes that must be scanned to take the shopper to that website.

“This is not a label; it’s an obstacle course,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR), an outspoken critic of the bill.

Before the Senate voted on the bill, the FDA advised the bill’s authors that the text seemed to open up several loopholes, allowing for certain ingredients to avoid the GMO label.

For example, the text says that food products receiving these labels must contain genetic material. That would seem to exempt products like oils, starches, and purified proteins even if they were sourced from GE crops.

The bill also says that an item is only to be labeled as genetically modified if the modification could not have occurred through “conventional breeding.” The FDA raised concerns that the lack of specificity in the language could open this term up to an overly generous reading.

Groups like the Center for Food Safety and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition are already calling on President Obama to veto the legislation.

“The GMO labeling law’s principal thrust is to rely on QR codes which shoppers will scan to gain product information relative to GMOs,” writes Rainbow PUSH founder Rev. Jesse Jackson in a letter to the President. “However, 100,000,000 Americans, most of them poor, people of color and elderly either do not own a smart phone or an iPhone to scan the QR code or live in an area of poor internet connectivity.”

Barring a Presidential veto, the Vermont labeling law appears to be short-lived. Consumerist has reached out to a number of companies that made the labeling change nationwide in advance of the Vermont rules to see if they will cease printing this information should the national bill be signed by President Obama.

Campbell Soup Co. has publicly supported the Roberts/Stabenow bill. However, a rep for the company confirms to Consumerist the labels will remain for the time-being.

“We remain committed to printing clear and simple language on the labels of all of our U.S. products,” says the Campbell rep. “We are already working with the FDA and USDA on labeling language that is comprehensive, clear and informative.”

Additionally, a rep for Mars Inc. says it will also continue with its existing labels.

“We believe our approach satisfies two important goals: to underscore the importance of adhering to the highest standards of quality and food safety, and to address our consumers’ information needs,” explains the Mars rep. “We are of course going to watch the proposed USDA process play out to see if a better alternative approach to labeling is developed. But this will take a while, so we are staying the course for now.”

A rep for Nestlé tells Consumerist that the company has not yet made a determination on whether or not to continue its labels.

“We continue to fully support consumers’ desire to know what is in their food, which is why we have always supported a uniform, national approach to informing consumers about the presence of GMO ingredients,” reads an emailed statement. “We will comply with the federal standard on GMO labeling as it comes into effect, just as we do with all other laws and regulations for labeling food and beverage products.”

Nestlé says it remains committed to pushing for the SmartLabel barcode-scanning platform, claiming its a way to provide information about GMO ingredients, allergens, and other items of interest.

General Mills was less forthcoming about its plans.

“We’re pleased that a national standard for GMO labeling of food is now before the President for his signature. We look forward to reviewing the USDA guidance as it develops,” reads a statement from the company. “Regarding our plans on future labeling, we will need to review the USDA’s guidance once finalized, talk with our consumers on their preferences, and develop our long-term plan.”

We’ve asked General Mills to clarify whether this means the current labels will continue in the interim, but have not yet heard back.

PepsiCo has not yet responded to our request for comment.