Last year, the House passed a bill to pre-empt states from imposing mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, also known as GMOs. While it looked like the Senate was going to follow suit, in the last minute, the new Senate bill would actually effectively mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food.

In the Senate bill, there would be a national mandatory labeling requirement unless the Secretary of Agriculture determines that there has been substantial participation by labeled foods in voluntary labeling. The secretary has to develop regulations to clarify the process, but there has to be at least 70 percent substantial participation after two years.

Recently, I wrote in The Hill:

As Congress considers how to proceed, it should recognize that taking action promptly is less important than addressing the mandatory labeling issue properly. Solutions that propose alternative labeling requirements, such as through barcodes, entirely miss the point about why mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is particularly problematic: The information contained in the labels would convey the incorrect message that genetically engineered food is unsafe. Prohibiting the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is both the simplest and best solution. [Emphasis added].

The Senate bill misses the point.

The bill would pre-empt state labeling laws, including Vermont’s new state labeling law that would go into effect this summer. However, the purpose of pre-emption was to ensure that there wasn’t mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, not to create what amounts to a federal mandatory labeling requirement.

The food industry may benefit by getting this pre-emption and having the government force companies to participate in a “voluntary” program. If there is forced “voluntary” participation or just a straight out mandate, both are requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food. The big problem is information contained in labels (including through bar codes) conveys the misleading information that genetically engineered foods are unsafe.

While the House bill promotes freedom by limiting both government intervention and compulsory speech, and respects sound science, the Senate bill would rush to take action just because industry will soon be faced with Vermont’s labeling law.

The Senate bill is ignoring the voluntary labeling efforts that already exist and the fact that informing consumers that food is genetically engineered only describes the process, not anything about the nutrition or safety of the food.

Neither the federal government, nor states, should get in the way of companies voluntarily providing consumers information about genetically engineered food. However, no government should force companies to provide this information just because some consumers would like to know about it. The market will respond accordingly, as it already has with some companies choosing to provide this information to consumers.

If a prohibition on mandatory labeling isn’t feasible in the Senate, then the Senate should come back to fight another day.