Senate Amendment to S. 764 - An Act to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act, and for other purposes. [GMO Labeling Requirements]

S. 764

An Act to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act, and for other purposes. [GMO Labeling Requirements]

Sen. Pat Roberts

July 14, 2016 (114th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
John Huston

Floor Situation

On Thursday, July 14, 2015, the House will likely consider Senate Amendment to S. 764, relating to GMO Labeling Requirements, under a rule.  S. 764 is being used as a vehicle to advance legislation relating to the labeling of bioengineered food, which is not related to the original bill text. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and passed the Senate by a vote of 63 to 30 on July 7, 2016.

Bill Summary

The Senate Amendment to S. 764 requires the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) to create a national mandatory bioengineered food labeling program within two years of enactment, with certain exceptions. Specifically, the bill requires food manufacturers to disclose the presence of bioengineered foods[1] using text, a symbol, or electronic or digital link (excluding Internet website links); with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer.

The bill prohibits meat products from being labeled as bioengineered solely because the animal consumed bioengineered feed products. The bill also requires the USDA to report to Congress on certain factors affecting such labeling requirements under the bill.

State and Local Law Preemption—The bill preempts all State and local laws regarding bioengineered food labeling to avoid a patchwork of state and local laws across the U.S.

Non-GMO or Non-Bioengineered Labeling— The bill specifies that any food certified as “organic”, under the USDA National Organic Program, shall be considered sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food, such as “not bioengineered”, “non-GMO”, or another similar claim. The bill also specifies that a food may not be considered or labeled “not bioengineered” or “non-GMO”, or any other similar claim describing the absence of bioengineering in the food solely because the food is not required to bear a disclosure that the food is bioengineered under the bill.

[1] The term “bioengineered food”, under the bill, means most food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and or which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.


Genetically engineered foods or plants, commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMO) or bioengineered foods, are foods derived from plant varieties that are developed using rDNA technology which introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism. Federal law does not impose specific labeling requirements on a food just because it may contain genetically engineered ingredients or was derived using biotechnology.[1]  Although more than 60 countries have some form of labeling mandate for genetically engineered foods[2], according to the Committee, those laws contain numerous inconsistencies and have in some cases been enacted to impose non-tariff trade barriers to U.S. agricultural exports.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that specific labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods are unnecessary because the general food labeling requirements required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) will guide and protect consumers. Specifically stating that, “[the agency] has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”[3]  FDA has not issued formal regulations and policies on the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

The FFDCA prohibits the misbranding of foods in order to enable consumers to choose foods wisely by ensuring that the labels communicate essential and accurate information.  The FDA does not have the specific legal authority to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, unless there is a material difference; however, the agency does have the authority to take enforcement action against false or misleading labels, such as food falsely labeled “GMO free”.[4]

The use of the word “natural” on labels of food has been subject to the source of deceptive and misleading legal complaints. Neither the FFDCA nor the FDA, through regulation, defines the term “natural”; however, the FDA has issued an informal policy defining “natural” as food that does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.[5] Food labeled “natural” sold more $40 billion in domestic retail sales in 2013; however, many companies have begun removing such labeling from their products due to a recent increase in lawsuits challenging labeling accuracy.[6] As part of a recent class action lawsuit, PepsiCo settled a lawsuit for $9 million over allegations that the “natural” labeling on its Naked Juice products misled consumers.[7] The Senate Amendment does not explicitly address issues relating to “natural” labeling, although the House bill (H.R. 1599) specifically required the FDA to address the issue through regulation.

Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have recently enacted laws that, among other things and with certain exceptions, require food suppliers to disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in foods. However, both the Connecticut and Maine statutes contain a provision stating that the state will not enforce the labeling requirements outlined in the respective acts until a requisite number of states pass similar legislation (which has not yet been met). Vermont’s law took effect on July 1, 2016.[8] However, Vermont officials have indicated that they will not start enforcing the GMO labeling law until 2017.

These state laws raise various legal issues, such as whether the state labeling requirements violate the First Amendment rights of the manufacturers; whether the state laws are preempted by federal labeling requirements; and whether these laws place an impermissible burden on interstate commerce. Certain trade organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Vermont’s labeling law on these and other grounds.[9]

The House passed H.R. 1599, Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, on July 23, 2015, by a vote of 275 to150. The bill established a voluntary non-genetically engineered food certification program within USDA to govern the labeling of such food in a nationally uniform manner. In contrast to the House-passed bill, the Senate Amendment establishes a mandatory labeling requirement. Click here to read the Legislative Digest for H.R. 1599. The Senate Amendment is supported by the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which is a coalition of hundreds of stakeholders across the country that support the legislation.

According to the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, “[this] legislation allows farmers to continue using sound science to produce more food with less resources, gives flexibility to food manufacturers in disclosing information, and gives access to more food information that consumers demand.”[10]

[1] See CRS Report, “Legal Issues with Federal Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food: In Brief,” August 28, 2014.
[3]See FDA Website , “Draft Guidance For Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Developed Using Bioengineering.”
[4] See CRS Report, Legal Issues with Federal Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food: In Brief,” August 28, 2014.
[5] See FDA Website, What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?
[6] See WSJ Article, “Some Food Companies Ditch ‘Natural’ Label,” November 6, 2013.
[7] See Huffington Post Article, “Naked Juice Class Action Lawsuit Settlement Over Health Claims Means $9 Million For Consumers,” August 28, 2013.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] See Senate Agriculture Committee Press Release, “Chairman Roberts: Agriculture Biotechnology Solution Approved by Senate,” July 7, 2016.


A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cost estimate is currently not available.

Additional Information

For questions or further information please contact John Huston with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-5539.