Time may soon expire for states wishing to implement mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. With a bipartisan vote of 14-6, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed legislation that would pre-empt any state law regarding the labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and establish a national voluntary labeling standard.

By approving the bill, proposed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, supporters say the country avoids a confusing state-by-state patchwork of laws that would be costly to both manufacturers and consumers.  

“It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue,” Roberts said, who is also chairman of the Senate committee. “This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers…Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws. It sets national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered. This allows the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration. Should it pass, the bill would establish a national voluntary GMO labeling standard to be developed by USDA within two years of the bill’s enactment. The House passed a similar bill, HR 1599, last year.

GMO labeling has been a controversial topic in recent months. Opponents of a national labeling standard argue consumers have the right to know what ingredients are in their food and how they are sourced, often dubbing these laws DARK acts or the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” which they say are anti-democratic. Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have all passed legislation requiring the mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and member Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, offered a dissenting opinion on the vote. Stabenow acknowledged biotechnology as an important tool and recognizes that a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws is not an efficient solution, but said she cannot offer her support since the bill does not provide a path toward mandatory disclosure of GMOs.

A voluntary program is not enough to meet consumer demand. That is why I cannot support it,” Stabenow said.