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MIT Technology Review

Get Ready for GMO Labels on Foods

Congress wants you to know if biotech corn is in that box of cereal.

The debate over whether food companies should be required to label products containing genetically modified ingredients took an important turn this month when the nation’s first labeling law took effect in Vermont. Now Congress appears to be on the verge of passing the first-ever federal standard for disclosing information about genetically engineered food, a bill that would preempt state laws.

Thursday night the Senate voted 63-30 for a bill that would require companies to reveal to consumers when products contain “bioengineered” ingredients. It now goes to the House, which has voted before to prevent states from passing their own labeling laws, and has passed a voluntary labeling standard.

Whether President Obama would sign such a measure is unknown. But as more states consider their own label laws, the food industry is now reluctantly supporting a single federal standard.

Critics say the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough. The biggest sticking point is that it gives companies the opportunity to refrain from displaying information directly on the packaging, and instead opt to place a telephone number or digital code that consumers could use to obtain more information.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also expressed concerns about the bill, arguing that the way it defines genetically engineered food would result in a “somewhat narrow scope of coverage,” and confusion over what qualifies as genetic engineering.

(Read more: Vox, “Washington Grapples with a Thorny Question: What Is a GMO, Anyway?”)