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Congress Passes A GMO Labeling Bill That Nullifies Vermont's Law

Kathleen Masterson
VPR file
The federal bill was drafted in response to Vermont's GMO labeling law. Supporters say it creates a national standard, but critics say the law is weaker than Vermont's.

Congress has passed a national GMO labeling bill that would nullify Vermont's labeling law, which went into effect July 1. 

The federal bill passed the House Thursday with solid support from both Democrats and Republicans, sending the legislation on to President Obama's desk. It would require most processed foods with genetically engineered ingredients to carry either a text label, a symbol or an electronic code to be read by smart phones. 

Gov. Peter Shumlin says Vermont was overpowered by the food industry's lobbying power and financial resources in the fight over labeling of genetically modified food.

Vermont lawmakers, along with those from Maine and Connecticut, unanimously voted against the bill.

The federal bill was drafted in response to Vermont's law, and supporters say it creates a national standard and avoids the creation of a patchwork of state-by-state labeling laws.  (This compromise bill comes on the heels of an earlier effort to block Vermont's law and instead make GMO labeling voluntary, which was blocked by the Senate in March.)

Critics have argued that this national mandatory labeling requirement is weaker than Vermont's law, in part because it would allow a "QR" code that is scanned by a smartphone to count as a label.

"It's a mode of labeling that is only available to a certain percentage of Americans… it would exclude somewhere up to 100 million Americans from actually being able to access that  labeling, and those are low-income, rural and the elderly. So that's absolutely discrimination on its face," says Andrew Kimbrell,  the executive director for the Center for Food Safety. 

Also under debate is what the bill considers to be genetically engineered foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration submitted comments, writing that the bill “will likely mean that many foods from genetically engineered sources will not be subject to this bill.”

That's in part because the bill says the “bioengineered” label only applies to foods that contain genetic materials.  

“That would mean that foods from GE sources that you can’t detect [the genetic materials]— that’s all your oils, sugars, fructose corn syrup, all that stuff — they would be exempted from the bill,” says Kimbrell. 

The bill leaves many labeling details to be determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including what percentage of genetically engineered ingredients a food needs to have to require a label.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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