- The Senate passed a bill late Thursday that, if it becomes law, will establish the first mandatory GMO national labeling standard.
- After receiving a 63-30 final vote in the Senate, the bill will advance to the House for approval. The House could vote on the bill as early as next week, before legislators break for national party conventions and their August recess.
- House approval is not yet a given, and any amendments the House adds would return the bill to the Senate.
Winning a simple majority vote in the Senate was seen as likely after the bill received a 65-32 passing cloture vote Wednesday, and this vote clears a significant hurdle for proponents of the bill. But the GMO labeling debate is far from over. The House already passed a GMO labeling bill last year, but that bill made labeling voluntary rather than mandatory.
That history could make winning in the House an even steeper challenge for food industry lobbyists and supporters of the current version of the bill. House Republicans could object to mandatory disclosure in any form, or insist on other amendments. House Democrats may feel the label's implementation does not go far enough because it allows a QR code in place of an on-package statement.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking. If the House does not pass the bill in its current form next week, the bill could still pass before Vermont's government starts enforcing its own mandatory GMO labeling law, which requires an on-package statement, on Jan. 1. Because 2016 is an election year and a convention season is ahead, lawmakers will have other distractions to contend with.
This leaves many manufacturers in a tight spot. A handful of major companies have chosen to voluntarily label GMO ingredients across their portfolios to preempt Vermont's law and any national mandates. Coca-Cola has chosen to pull certain smaller products from Vermont rather than label them, and other companies have stopped selling their products in Vermont altogether.
But the rest are anxiously awaiting Congress' final decision before implementing any labeling changes that could prove costly in terms of both finances and reputation. Especially for companies that have positioned their products as "natural," having to admit that their products contain GMO ingredients could cost them loyal customers.
Technically, no regulatory definition for the term "natural" exists, so manufacturers would be within their legal rights. But nearly two-thirds of consumers (60%) assume "natural" products are non-GMO, according to a Consumer Reports study published in January.
"Consumers are probably not entirely aware of how much genetically-modified foods have permeated the food supply," William Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, told Food Dive last month.