Senate Passes America’s First GMO-Labeling Bill

Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products, in Los Angeles, California, October 19, 2012. California could become the first US state to enforce labeling of genetically modified foodstuffs also know as GMO's, in a vote next month pitting agro-chemical manufacturing giants against die-hard opponents of so-called
Labels for everybody, hurray! Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The government’s first GMO-labeling bill achieved a broad bipartisan victory yesterday in the Senate. It only needed a majority vote, but the measure passed 63–30, a sign critics point to as evidence this stab at food transparency probably isn’t going to be worth anything. The bill would force food companies nationwide to disclose genetically modified ingredients in their products, but opponents have complained it’s toothless because it imposes no penalties for noncompliance and seems to exempt a variety of genetically engineered foods.

Their biggest gripe involves the bill’s loose definition of the term “label” in the first place: Companies get three options for how they want to admit their product contains a GM ingredient (a thing that’s currently very unpopular with Americans). They can use plain language, a universal symbol, or a … QR code that requires a smartphone. Critics assume savvy companies would opt for the QR-code route — and that most consumers would continue ignoring this horrible technology like they always have.

While the bill coasted through the Senate, the lead-up to the floor vote was actually pretty drama-filled. On Wednesday, as the chamber was invoking cloture, protesters in the galleries heckled and then threw money at the bill’s sponsors, telling reporters they’d “made it rain” on the lawmakers who’d been “bought” by Monsanto.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, used it as an opportunity to troll his colleagues on Twitter:

He and other opponents wanted something closer to the GMO-labeling law that just went into effect in his home state of Vermont (and which the federal bill would dismantle). He argued during debate that parents “have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating,” and not have to download QR-code readers.

Opponents have listed other supposed loopholes, arguing, for instance, that the ambiguous language could let GM corn off scot-free. The FDA even sent the Senate Committee on Agriculture a letter noting that certain heavily processed foods (sweeteners and oils, mostly) have no trace of the genetically modified crops they’re derived from, so in theory they’d still pass the bill’s test to qualify as non-GMO.

Senator Pat Roberts, one of the bill’s sponsors, has admitted that it’s “not the best possible bill,” but likely is “the best bill possible under the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today.” It’s unclear what fate awaits it in the House, or if President Obama would agree to sign whatever version emerges.

Senate Passes America’s First GMO-Labeling Bill