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The Senate Is About to Vote on a GMO Food Labeling Bill

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Senator Bernie Sanders is fighting a law that would create a nationalized standard of GMO food labeling he argues is weaker than what is currently required in Vermont, his home state.Photograph by ROBYN BECK--AFP via Getty Images

The Senate will vote Wednesday on a bill today that would establish a voluntary food labeling standard for products that contain genetically-modified ingredients. The issue has ardent supporters and detractors, from the likes of organically-minded celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who has advocated for GMO labeling to deep-pocketed food and biotech companies that have spent hundreds of millions to fight such a move.

The bill would establish a national voluntary marketing standard for all food products that have or could possibly contain bioengineered ingredients and would use a carrot-and-stick approach to incentivize manufacturers to participate. It would also limit stricter labeling laws that could be passed by states if it’s approved, reported the New York Times.

Vermont was on the verge of passing a GMO-labeling requirement for all products, which would make it the first to do so. A California effort to push a similar bill in 2014 failed to pass the state Senate by two votes, the second time in two years such legislation fell flat. Maine and Connecticut have also passed GMO-labeling standards, but they won’t go into effect until other states in the area also adopt similar laws.

The Senate bill likely will not have sufficient support to pass as many Democrats want to see a mandatory labeling program, noting that a voluntary program is nearly worthless to consumers.

“Voluntary standards are no standards at all,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana. “We need to defeat this bill. This is bad, bad, bad policy.”

The concern for those that support the Senate bill is that mandatory GMO labeling could hinder food producers and even incidentally increase food prices due to the burden of changing labels. Though, in a concession by Republicans, the bill also contains language that would allow for mandatory labeling of GMO products if the voluntary program proves ineffective in a few years time, a move to soothe pro-labeling factions.

Companies are worried that such labels could dampen sales for food items that contain bioengineered ingredients, whose health impacts are vague based on current scientific research and which are common in many processed foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Associate estimates that more than 70% of grocery items have some amount of corn, soy, sugar beets, or canola—the most commonly genetically-modified crops.

Other companies have opted to add the label in recent years voluntarily, including General Mill’s (GIS) which changed its Cheerios packaging to highlight its non-GMO status. The label hasn’t substantially affected sales of Cheerios, either positively or negatively, so far.