The US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a biotechnology hearing on October 21 to discuss the future of food technology as the industry responds to increased demand, production challenges and consumers’ calls for a safe, transparent food supply. Specifically, the committee discussed the safety of food derived from genetically modified organisms and the possibility of a uniform national labeling standard.

“This is the first time in 10 years this committee has held a hearing on agriculture biotechnology, a topic that is of utmost importance for producers in meeting the global food challenge” says Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, committee chairman. “Science has come a long way in those 10 years, and we recognize those beneficial advances today.”

This Senate hearing follows the House of Representatives’ July passage of a bipartisan bill creating a national labeling standard and a GMO-free certification program that will provide consumers who wish to purchase products that do not contain GMOs with a reliable means of doing so.

The US House of Representatives passed the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” by a vote of 275-150. The bill, which has received the support of the food industry, preempts state-level efforts to create mandatory GMO labeling laws by granting FDA authority to establish a national standard label for food and beverage products containing genetically modified ingredients. The legislation requires manufacturers to receive FDA certification that their products are deemed safe to enter the market and ensures consistency between non-GMO certification processes established by other labeling programs. The bill also sets a federal standard for the definition of “natural” food. The act was introduced in March by Congressmen Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and has attracted 106 cosponsors.

Food industry groups, which argue a patchwork of state labeling laws would lead to consumer confusion and higher product costs, support the bill and urge Senate members to take action on food labeling legislation. “The Senate Agriculture hearing reaffirmed the broad consensus among scientists and regulators that GMOs are safe and highlighted the real-world negative impacts a patchwork of state-labeling mandates will have on farmers, businesses and consumers,” says Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “Action by Congress is urgently needed this year to pass a national, uniform labeling standard.”

Joseph Clayton, interim president of the American Frozen Food Institute, commended the committee for acknowledging scientific evidence that points to the safety of GMO ingredients. Vermont is currently the only state with a law requiring labels for food containing GMO ingredients. That law is scheduled to take effect in July 2016, though it is being challenged by the food industry.

 “While we continue our efforts in federal court to challenge Vermont’s state labeling law, the court process could take years until full resolution and will certainly not be concluded prior to the implementation of the Vermont law,” Bailey says. “That leaves only Congress with the authority to prevent this law and others like it from enactment.”

A video of the committee’s hearing can be viewed here.