The NCSL Blog

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By Morgan Simpson and Doug Farquhar

The first state law requiring certain genetically modified food to be labeled as such goes into effect tomorrow, July 1. 

This VermonTomatoes with hypodermic needle in onet law requires certain food to be labeled as “produced with genetic engineering” if the food is offered for retail sale in Vermont and entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.

The law exempts animal products, certain processed foods, and certain raw agricultural commodities from the labeling requirement. Although the law goes into effect in July, the state is providing a six-month grace period for companies to come into compliance.

NCSL has been tracking the state legislative response to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2016, state legislatures introduced 95 bills relating to genetically modified foods; 70 of these bills related directly to the labeling of GMOs. Three of the GMO labeling bills passed or were enacted: ME H 295, MI HR 89, and MI SR 59. Two other bills, PA SR 95 and TN HJR 218, supporting the use of scientific data to assess the impacts that regulations have on the food industry, were also adopted.

Congress has recognized the potential ramifications of individual state labeling regulations and is working to enact a uniform federal standard that would pre-empt states from implementing their own requirements.

In 2015, the House passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labelling Act of 2015. This bill gives the secretary of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the discretionary power to require genetically engineered food to be labeled as such if they determine the genetically engineered food was materially different from nonmodified food, and the labeling was necessary to protect public health and welfare.

This bill also contains a pre-emption clause that says any future or past state law on the subject would be invalid if it is not identical to the federal law. A companion bill was introduced to the Senate, but it is unlikely to move forward.

In the Senate, where 60 votes are required to move most legislation forward, the issue remains unresolved.

Earlier this year, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) proposed the Bioengineered Foods Voluntary Labeling Standard, which would give the secretary of agriculture the power and obligation to establish a voluntary food labeling standard for genetically engineered food.

This bill also contains a pre-emption clause that would prohibit states from establishing or continuing any requirement relating to the labeling of genetically engineered food. However, while the bill did attract a majority of senators, it was unable to garner 60 votes and overcome a potential filibuster. The bill’s failure also made it clear that to win Senate approval for a uniform federal standard, labeling would need to be mandatory.

Roberts worked with Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to produce a bill that would require food producers to label genetically modified foods.

Two key differences between the House bill and the first attempt in the Senate is that it mandates labeling as well as requiring the secretary of agriculture to establish this national disclosure standard for genetically modified foods within two years of the bill being enacted.

Additionally, the bill contains a pre-emption clause that, similar to House bill, would forbid states from enacting or continuing in effect any labeling requirements for genetically modified foods. It remains unclear if and when this bill would receive a vote.

For more information on state GMO legislation, visit the NCSL State Legislation Address Genetically Modified Organism.

Doug Farquhar directs the Environmental Health Program at NCSL and Morgan Simpson is an intern in the program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.