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S. 2609 (114th): An original bill to amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national voluntary labeling standard for bioengineered foods, and for other purposes.

On July 1, the first ever state law requiring all genetically engineered foods to be labeled is scheduled to take effect in Vermont.

But some members of Congress are working to preempt the Vermont labeling requirement, and similar requirements that have been passed in Maine and Connecticut, from ever actually taking effect. Legislators are also considering a “QR code” requirement for any voluntary labeling.

Legislation from Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) that would ban state GMO labeling requirements and replace them with a national voluntary labeling system passed out of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee on March 1 and is expected to come before the full Senate this Wednesday.

Robert’s bill, S. 2609, would thwart state labeling efforts with one sentence:

> No State … may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce any requirement for a food that is the subject of the bioengineered food labeling standard under this section that is not identical to that voluntary standard.

The bill also calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a “national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard” that would prohibit labels stating that genetically modified foods are any less safe than other foods.

Will it pass?

In order for S. 2609 to pass, supporters will have to overcome an inevitable Democratic filibuster threat by securing the support of at least 3/5ths of the Senate’s members, or 60 votes.

Reaching 60 votes will be difficult: Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are busy campaigning and may not be present to vote, Susan Collins (R-ME) may vote against it to protect her state’s GMO labeling requirement, and Sen. Murkowski (R-AK) has generally supported labeling to protect her state’s salmon fisheries.

While three Democrats — Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — joined all the Republicans on the committee that approved the bill on March 1, they are not guaranteed to support the bill when it comes to the floor. Klobuchar told Minnesota press that she will not support the bill on the floor unless it is amended to include “more transparency and a national uniform standard that works for consumers.” Heitkamp and Donnelly have made similar statements to local media.

The House has been considering similar legislation, H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

QR codes as GMO labels

According to the text of a manager’s amendment posted to Twitter on March 14, 2016, Roberts, the bill’s sponsor, hopes to add minimum requirements for including QR codes as part of the voluntary labeling standard. A QR code is a square symbol that can be scanned by smartphone cameras to open up an informational page.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group that has spent millions to fight state labeling laws (and was just recently found guilty of illegally concealing the identity of its corporate donors), had suggested that scannable QR codes could be used to label GMO foods. Under their proposal, which they call SmartLabel, consumers would be able to scan QR codes on food packages in order to open webpages that would give them information about the product they scanned.

According to a recent poll commissioned by consumer and environmental groups that support mandatory GMO labeling, only about 16 percent of consumers have ever scanned a QR code.

The SmartLabel proposal may end up playing a central role as the bill moves forward. According to Politico, some on-the-fence Democrats, including those who voted to advance the bill out of committee, could possibly be persuaded to support the bill with the QR codes amendment.

Food industry influence

According to OpenSecrets, Roberts has received $945,201 in campaign funds from political action committees and individuals tied to the agricultural services and products sector, more than he has received from any other sector of the economy. His top agricultural donors work for ConAgra Foods (donations total $55,000), a company that, according to their press materials, “does not support mandatory labeling on a state by state basis.”

The Department of Agriculture is frequently lobbied by interests that oppose GMO labeling laws. In 2015, food giant Monsanto listed the Agriculture department as a target on 10 lobbying disclosure firms, more times than it listed lobbying any other federal agency.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, the trade group that is arguing for the QR code approach and represents food companies (including Coca-Cola, Dole, and General Mills) and chemical companies (including Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta), spent $8.5 million on lobbying the federal government in 2015. The bulk of their lobbying disclosure forms list “food labeling” and related legislation as an issue they have been discussing with legislators and government officials.

Last updated Mar 15, 2016. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 1, 2016.

(This measure has not been amended since it was introduced. The summary has been expanded because action occurred on the measure.)

(Sec. 1) This bill amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.

The standard applies to food that either contains or was developed or produced using genetic material that: (1) has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques, and (2) could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature. (Recombinant DNA is DNA that has been altered by joining genetic material from two or more different organisms.)

USDA regulations implementing this bill must:

prohibit claims regarding the safety or quality of food based on whether or not the food is bioengineered, determine the amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present for a food to be labeled as bioengineered, and establish a process for requesting and granting determinations regarding other factors and conditions under which a food may be labeled as bioengineered. USDA must provide science-based information through education, outreach, and promotion to address consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.

USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services must report to Congress regarding the availability of information for determining whether food is bioengineered or bioengineering was used in the development or production process.

The labeling standard established by this bill preempts state and local laws regarding the labeling of bioengineered or genetically engineered food or seeds.