How Pat Roberts’ bill could actually result in labeling GMOs

Debbie Stabenow D-Michigan, Chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, with Frank N. Foode during a visit in 2013

Last week, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) introduced a bill to the US Senate Agricultural Committee that concerns labeling genetically engineered foods, or GMOs. The main thrust of the bill seeks to pre-empt state legislatures from creating their own unique label requirements for GMOs, instead instructing the USDA to come up with a voluntary labeling scheme. The Senate Agricultural Committee, headed by Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) who has expressed a sense of urgency in addressing this topic, reviewed the bill on Tuesday March 1st, and approved it 14-6. While proponents of mandatory GMO labeling have derided this bill as a means to prevent GMOs from being labeled, a closer analysis reveals that it has some unique characteristics that might actually result in GMOs being labeled, but not necessarily the way that labeling proponents have in mind.

GMO labeling is an intensely political topic, involving both science and risk perceptions, as well as economics, international and domestic politics, and more. Funded largely by industries that compete with genetically engineered foods for market share, several GMO labeling advocacy organizations have launched campaigns that focus almost exclusively on lobbying for mandatory GMO labels on a state-by-state basis. Their efforts have paid off with Vermont being the first state to pass mandatory requirements for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such (exempting Vermont’s large dairy industry), effective on July 1st this year. Opponents of mandatory labeling have argued that the unique state-by-state laws being considered (and some passed) will create a patchwork of inconsistent labeling requirements in each state, interrupting interstate commerce. Lawsuits are currently underway challenging the Vermont Law, while various political efforts have been made to pre-empt any state laws on a federal level. Last year, the House of Representatives passed HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would block states from imposing their own labeling standards. Without a matching bill in the Senate, however, the provisions of HR 1599 would not go into effect. Other efforts of inserting language into the Omnibus spending bill have failed.

If the Vermont labeling bill stands, on July 1st any company selling products containing genetically engineered foods that are not labeled as such would face fines to the tune of $1,000 a day for each violation. At the very least, costs are expected to rise for food manufacturers who would need to trace ingredients to comply with the law, or simply place a nebulous “may contain” statement to avoid legal liability. One food manufacturer, Campbell’s, appears to have “voluntarily” labeled its products as containing GMOs in advance of the July 1st deadline, but the absence of action on the part of other companies has led to speculations that a large number of products may not be sold in Vermont anymore as doing so becomes illegal.  Hence the sense of urgency felt by members of the Senate Agricultural Committee in resolving this issue, as well as at the USDA which has held several meetings with stakeholders to try to reach a compromise. There have even been rumors that Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Democratic presidential candidate might filibuster the bill if it becomes introduced to the Senate.

Despite all the political debate about this bill, few have taken a deep look into the proposed text of the bill. (PDF, section-by-section markup) The bill does preempt states from determining how (and if) GMOs would be labeled, which has led proponents of labeling to call it the “DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act”, and they argue that any voluntary standard would leave many GMOs unlabeled.

The dispute over mandatory vs voluntary labeling is based on assumptions about how the labels will be perceived. Proponents of labeling have argued that GMO labeling is a “Right to Know” issue, and most people when specifically asked about GMO labeling do agree that they would like to know which foods are made from GMOs (while voting down every labeling measure that has hit the ballots). But the GMO labeling advocacy organizations have also revealed that their agenda also includes attaching a stigma to foods containing GMOs to increase the market appeal of competing goods, often as a means to eliminate GMOs from agriculture. Opponents of mandatory labeling cite costs of segregating and tracing GMO foods, as well as unnecessarily stigmatizing foods that are no less safe than any other, and a desire to protect the use of GMOs, often supported by members of the food and biotech industry. There has been little progress in this political debate, but there is one section of Pat Roberts bill that has the potential to turn assumptions about consumer perceptions upside-down. Rather than instructing the FDA to impose labels on GMOs, the bill proposes that the USDA create voluntary labels, which given the consumer perceptions of the USDA means that it could give some products a marketing edge.

What USDA GMO labels would mean

USDA-Meat-grade-shieldsThink about the USDA labels in the meat section of your grocery store. What do they mean to the consumer? If you are like me and you see “USDA Choice” or “USDA Prime” on a food package (or a restaurant menu), it means greater confidence in the quality of the meat, versus a package that just says: “Beef”. The same goes for the many foods, fibers, and other products that the USDA grades and helps producers market to the public through the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Having the USDA come up with a voluntary labeling program could potentially enhance the marketability of foods labeled as containing GMOs.

I’m not just speculating about this – there is actually science about consumer perceptions that supports this argument. An experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota by Onyango et al. tested consumers’ “Willingness to Pay” for corn chips with different labels. These kinds of experiments are used to calculate how much more or less consumers are willing to pay for different products. They found that from a range of GMO labels tested, two of them actually got a 4-5% price boost over non-labeled chips, and a whopping 11% over foods labeled as “contains genetically modified corn.” One of these two labels explained benefits from lower pesticide use, and the other said “contains USDA approved genetically modified corn.”

WTP-GMOInvoking the USDA increased confidence in the food, and from a communication standpoint it both communicates information about the GMO content as well as information about regulation of GMOs. This means that although “Contains NO genetically modified corn” got a 10% boost in price, that price advantage in the marketplace could be cut almost in half by a carefully crafted label that actually states that the food was made from GMOs. Note, also, that “May contain” had almost no effect on the price, and was the only result that was not statistically significant.

Therefore, Pat Roberts’ bill could result in a voluntary label that would make products more competitive, and offset the added cost of tracking and/or testing. This bill could actually result in a proliferation of GMO labels – but labels that don’t stigmatize and communicate the safety and/or benefits of genetic engineering.

Can consumer science rescue us from politics?

The GMO labeling debate has become stagnant, and there has been little movement either direction in the political sphere. But there is hope that using science to design a better label could rescue us from the current political rut. Some label-advocating organizations have made it clear that their political goals are to get rid of genetically engineered crops, and to use the labels to pressure companies to stop purchasing them. But others have indicated that they are interested in the labels for consumer choice and may be open to designing labels that are non-stigmatizing. If you are pro-labeling, would a positive, non-stigmatizing label be acceptable to you? If you are anti-labeling, would a positive label that increases its appeal change your position?

A positive, voluntary GMO label that is regulated by the USDA may in fact be a solution to the “Right to Know” vs “Increased cost” debate. If it leads to widespread adoption, it will inform consumers about the presence of GMOs as well as communicate other important aspects of their safety by association with the USDA. Because it would be a positive voluntary label, it will give an economic advantage to producers that can implement it efficiently and adopt it early, while taking away the stigma that producers worry may lead to rejection of their products. Finally, without the lawsuits and fines brought on by various mandatory labeling proposals (such as the Vermont law) there is less chance of businesses being targeted with expensive fines and lawsuits.

I made a comparison of the likely impacts of different labeling proposals. In version 1 of this chart I have only included mandatory “does contain” and “may contain” and Senator Roberts’ Proposal. According to Politico, Senator Merkley from Oregon will be introducing a second GMO labeling bill, and when details about this bill come out I will update the graphic. If there is any more information you would like to suggest that I include, let me know in the comments.


The problem with the current political debate about GMO labels is that the side that is designing these labeling laws are doing so in a fashion that will give market advantage to competing industries, hence it is strongly opposed by mainstream food brands and biotech companies. If the “Right to Know” argument is the real reason behind the labeling campaigns, and not market share, then there should be no problem with designing and implementing a positive label. However, when I wrote about why the California Proposition 37 and why it failed, there was little interest in such an idea. The labeling proponents have made their positions about market share and product stigmatization quite clear, and their lack of interest in proposing solutions that are more broadly appealing is I think ultimately what is jeopardizing their campaign’s success. While forcing the issue into the national debate by focusing on small states, this short-sightedness may result in no label at all.

What we need before any labeling law is implemented is to study the issue more deeply, including what the consumer acceptance and market impacts might be from different labeling proposals. Then if a proposal can be found that satisfies what the broadest coalition of people, companies, and other organizations are looking for, then it can be proposed, lobbied for, passed, and become policy. In my opinion, consumer (social) science can provide an answer to a hotly debated political question.

Since Pat Roberts’s bill has passed the Senate Agricultural committee, with 11 Republicans and 3 Democrats voting in favor, it will be introduced to the Senate. The urgency of finding a solution to this political issue was felt by the reports of the discussion that took place, and its quick approval in less than an hour. Organizations advocating for GMO labels are gearing up and raising money to lobby against it, as the July 1st deadline fast approaches. Many questions remain about the politics that lie ahead, especially how a contentious Presidential election may affect it.

While the politicos do their debating, perhaps we can tap into the creativity and scientific facts at our disposal and come up with our own ideas here. Who want’s to have a contest to design the best GMO label? It would be fascinating to see what this community can come up with.

USDA bioengineered
Mockup of USDA GMO label based on current food labels. Not so bad, eh?
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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.