Updated: Jul 24, 2020
By Mayhah Suri and Ashley Ellixson
Will we start seeing new labels on our food? Photo of peaches in a box by Edwin Remsberg
The past few weeks have been chock-full of developments on the genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling front. As we reported in our news post last Friday, President Obama has signed a bill requiring all foods containing GM ingredients be labeled.
Today is the first in a two-part blog post on this huge development in food law. This post lists the timeline of key events over the past three years which brought us to this point. The timeline comes from posts on this blog, news reports, and updates from Politico’s excellent Morning Agriculture report. Shout out to Politico’s amazing agriculture team for helping us keep tabs on all the twists and turns in the Congressional process!
Our second post will explain what we know so far about the bill and issues to look for in the future.
June 2013: Connecticut becomes the first state in the nation to pass a statewide requirement that all foods containing GMO ingredients must be labeled. The law contains many caveats, including the fact that it will not go into effect until bordering states pass a similar law. This was supposed to encourage surrounding states as well as ease the financial and logistical challenges for food manufacturers.
January 2014: Maine passes a similar statewide labeling requirement for GM ingredients with the same caveat that bordering states must pass a labeling law before it goes into effect.
May 2014: Vermont passes a statewide requirement that all foods containing GM ingredients must be labeled. The law has no caveats and will go into effect in 2016 regardless of what other states do.
March 2015: Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 passes the House as a first congressional attempt to pre-empt the Vermont bill. The bill:
Gives FDA the power to deem food products containing GMOs being sold across state lines unsafe for sale.
Prohibits mandatory labeling laws.
Restricts which types of products can have a voluntary “no-GMO” label. Products containing ingredients from GMO seeds cannot use the label; dairy products from animals fed bioengineered products may use it; foods developed using bioengineered processing aids may also use the voluntary “no-GMO label.”
Describes the type of language the label can use; forbids any wording which suggests bioengineered foods are less safe than non-GMO foods.
February 2016: Massachusetts and Rhode Island state legislatures look into passing labeling laws.
February 2016: Vermont labeling law is upheld by federal court and a procedural complaint is filed by the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) to block the Vermont law from taking effect in July 2016 is dismissed. This means the labeling law will take effect in July 2016.
At this point, the national conversation about what to do is once again taken up by Congress. Lawsuits and other court actions related to GMO labeling continue, but the rest of the timeline is focused on legislative and industry actions.
March 2016: Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposes a bill for voluntary national food label standards which prohibits mandatory labeling laws, like the one in Vermont. The bill fails.
March 2016: Food manufacturing giants Mars and General Mills announce plans to label products containing GM ingredients.
April 2016: PepsiCo begins labeling products containing GM ingredients without public announcement
June 2016: Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) announce a compromise deal after weeks of negotiations. The compromise, which was added as an amendment to a larger bill on various issues, requires mandatory labeling of all products containing GM ingredients. This bill creates three options for the label:
On-pack label saying “Contains GM ingredients” or other similar language.
A yet-to-be-developed USDA symbol signifying the presence of GM ingredients.
Digital label which may be scanned by the consumer disclosing the presence GM ingredients in the product.
The compromise, like all compromises, has had mixed reactions. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont opposed the bill, saying it would confuse consumers and protect food manufacturers. The Just Label Campaign, a key pro-label activist group, said the deal did not go far enough to create transparency. Large food manufacturing groups, including GMA, came out in support of the deal. The “good food” sector, whose most visible member is Whole Foods, also endorsed the deal but commented it was not a perfect solution.
June 2016: Nestle joins the list of food manufacturers to begin labeling products containing GMOs.
June 2016: Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a technical report evaluating the legislative compromise. FDA expresses concerns over overlaps or conflicts with other food labeling laws, narrow definitions of GMOs that may exclude oils and sugars, and the requirement that a label only be used if the genetic modification cannot be achieved through conventional production methods. That is, if the same characteristic can be created through standard plant or livestock breeding, the GM ingredient does not need to be disclosed. FDA concluded the bill would set a high standard for which products actually require a label.
July 2016: Vermont’s labeling law officially goes into effect. The Vermont Attorney General says the office will not prosecute for non-compliance until 2017, giving retailers about one year to sell all remaining non-labeled products. This law could still be invalidated if the Roberts-Stabenow deal passes both chambers of Congress and is signed into law at the national level.
July 2016: Vermont retailers express concerns about their level of responsibility for labeling products. About 3,000 products begin to be removed from Vermont retail shelves since they do not have a label. There is concern that having fewer choices in stores may lead to rising food prices. Coca-Cola Company announces it will remove some products from Vermont due to the law.
July 1-14, 2016: Congress continues to work to get a vote on the labeling compromise and activist groups on all sides of the issue ramp up pressure on voters, consumers, and members of Congress.
July 7, 2016: Senate passes Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling compromise 63-30 after 30 hours of debate.
July 14, 2016: House passes GMO labeling compromise 301-117 and the bill heads to the White House for President Obama’s signature. President Obama previously indicated he will sign the bill if it passes both chambers.
July 18, 2016: USDA announces creation of a working group to write the rules of implementation for the GMO labeling law, though President Obama has not yet signed it. USDA will have two years to finalize the rules.
July 29, 2016: President Obama signs national GMO labeling requirement into law, nullifying all state labeling laws, including Vermont’s.
Check out Part 2 next week for a summary of the bill and some questions for the near future!