U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the agriculture committee, introduced a bill late last week that aims to make not mandatory but voluntary the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Food Business News reported Monday. The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on the proposed legislation Thursday.

Under the legislation, states would be blocked from requiring labels on foods containing GMOs. A Vermont law is set to become effective July 1 that would require labeling of food or beverage products made with bioengineered ingredients, and U.S. senators have reportedly argued they want to find a compromise on the labeling issue before that law is implemented.

Represented by the likes of the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other organizations, the food industry generally backs Roberts’ proposal, arguing that GMOs are safe and that a patchwork of state laws regulating them is impractical.

RTX14T8N Employees stock shelves beneath a sign expressing support of foods without GMOs at the Central Co-op in Seattle Oct. 29, 2013. Photo: Reuters

“Congress must pass a national food labeling solution that offers farmers, families and food producers the certainty and access to the affordable and sustainable food supply they deserve,” said Pamela Bailey, head of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Associated Press reported.

However, advocates of mandatory labeling, such as the Environmental Working Group and the Friends of the Earth, are sharply opposed to measures such as the one proposed by Roberts and have been fighting state by state to enact mandatory-labeling laws, with the ultimate goal of a national standard.

“The vast majority of the public wants to know if the food they buy contains GMO ingredients. It’s time for Congress to create a mandatory on-package labeling requirement so people can decide for themselves whether they want to eat a food that has been produced using genetic engineering. Instead, Sen. Roberts’ bill would strip away the power of the states to protect the public’s right to know what is in their food,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement at EcoWatch. “We urge senators not to support this bill. The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable if they vote to strip away transparency about how their food is produced.” 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed GMOs safe, but advocates of labeling claim that not enough is yet known about the risks that they pose.