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Obama Signs Historic GMO Labeling Bill

President Barack Obama today quietly signed into law legislation that prevents states from requiring on-package labeling of genetically modified ingredients, capping a historic win for farm groups, food companies, and the biotech industry.

The Senate gave final congressional approval to the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote with backing from a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts called the bill the most important farm legislation in 20 years. USDA has already formed a working group to write rules needed to implement the legislation.

The bill was one of 20 the president signed into law late on a Friday afternoon. Most of the other measures were bills officially naming Post Office facilities.

The biotech bill mandates disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients but will allow companies to do it through scannable smartphone codes as an alternative to on-package text or symbol. The legislation is intended to nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which went into effect July 1 and has already forced major companies to start disclosing GMO ingredients on product packages.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said the legislation will “open a new era for transparency in ingredient information for consumers…”

“Its consistent national standard is far better than a costly and confusing patchwork of different state labeling,” Pam Bailey, GMA's president and CEO, said today in a release. “The president's signing of this legislation stops, effective immediately, Vermont's mandatory on-package labeling law that … already has left consumers in the state with fewer products on the shelves and higher compliance costs for small businesses.”

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said earlier this month that state labeling laws like Vermont's “threaten to increase …  consumer confusion and food costs while interfering with interstate commerce.”

For lawmakers from both parties, the bill was a flawed compromise, either because it will require disclosure of GMOs or because it didn't mandate the on-package labeling that typically gets strong support in consumer polls.

But food and agriculture interests nationwide were united in their support for the bill, which had the support of the Organic Trade Association as well as the conventional industry that relies on biotechnology. The Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played a key role, too, in helping develop the bill as a way to end the long-running controversy over GMO labeling and provide some certainty for the future of biotechnology.

This story was written by Daniel Enoch for Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

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