The fight in the states over food labeling could be cut off before it gets fully underway. That is, if President Obama signs a bill working its way through Congress.
The federal Safe and Accurate Food Labeling (SAFE) Act would block states from passing or enacting their own laws to label genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The bill passed the House last year, and sponsors expect the Senate to act as soon as this week.
Republicans have often been the party asserting states' rights during the Obama administration. On this bill, though, it's Democrats who want states to be able to choose whether to pursue GMO labeling. Republicans largely support the legislation.
It's unclear whether Obama would sign it.
"In 2007, Obama went on the record saying he favored food labeling," said Katherine Paul, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "Since elected, he has been silent. So there's no reason to believe he wouldn't sign the bill."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also said this week that he favors a national labeling standard that's mandatory rather than voluntary to avoid the confusion that comes from having a hodgepodge of state laws.
Advocates for GMO labeling have had limited success at the state level. More than 70 bills have been introduced in 30 states regarding labeling and use of GMOs, but only a few have passed. Vermont passed a GMO labeling law in 2014, which will take effect in July unless Congress and Obama approve the law before them. Alaska requires genetically modified fish to be labeled. Connecticut and Maine are the only other states that have passed mandatory labeling laws, but with one tricky clause: A "sufficient number" of other states must also pass labeling laws before theirs would take effect.
If the bill passes, it would be up to the federal government and companies to set national standards. Currently, Campbell Soup Company is the only major food producer that labels GMO ingredients on products.
"This allows the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended," said Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, in a statement.
Leaving that decision up to companies, not states, is critical to keeping food prices down, according to backers of the bill. They frequently cite a 2014 Cornell University study that found a family of four in New York state would ultimately pay as much as $500 more per year on food, as food and beverage companies sought non-GMO ingredients to avoid labeling.
“A uniform labeling standard is critical to ensuring that farmers are not faced with a patchwork of GMO labeling laws that would create chaos in the marketplace and increase grocery costs consumers,” said Claire Buchan Parker, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which supports the SAFE Act.
The federal legislation could have some unintended consequences.
In Minnesota, for example, it would undermine a regulation fought for by the Native American population. For the past 20 years, the state has had to conduct environmental impact studies to determine whenever a genetically modified form of the sacred wild rice harvested by Native Americans has been grown. That requirement would be rendered moot by the SAFE Act, according to Heather Kurth, campaign director of Right to Know Minnesota, which supports food labeling laws.
If the bill does become law, the fight won’t be entirely over. Labeling advocates say they will shift their focus to education efforts.
“We do think we can win with food businesses and work with them to create better ingredients and more transparency for consumers,” said Kurth.