Biotech Label Bill Fails

Senate Splits on Effort to Block Mandatory Biotech Food Labels

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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With the failure to come to terms on a federal "fix," parts of the food industry selling food in Vermont will have to start labeling products for ingredients from genetically engineered crops. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate couldn't come to terms on a bill closely tracked by agriculture that would block state biotech labeling laws by creating a voluntary federal program.

The defeat of a bill watched closely by the agriculture and food industries leaves biotech labeling efforts in the hands of states and private companies.

The bill failed to get enough votes Wednesday to advance in the U.S. Senate. Needing 60 senators to pass a procedural vote, the bill died with 48 yeas and 49 nays.

Too few Democrats were willing to support the bill crafted by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. The bill had advanced out of the Agriculture Committee two weeks ago on a bipartisan vote, but Roberts was unable to change the bill enough to garner more Democratic votes.

The Roberts bill would have banned state labels and established a federal voluntary labeling program through websites, "smart labels" and toll-free numbers that would become mandatory in three years if food companies do not voluntarily label 70% of their products. A similar bill passed the House last summer.

With the failure to come to terms on a federal "fix," parts of the food industry selling food in Vermont will have to start labeling products for ingredients from genetically engineered crops. Other states have been trying to craft similar legislation.

Before the vote, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee, said the final Senate bill failed to meet the test of giving consumers the right to know what is in their food.

Roberts told senators that the push to label foods from genetically engineered crops is not about nutrition or food safety. Allowing every state to have its own label would cost consumers as much as $82 billion a year in additional food costs, roughly $1,000 per family, Roberts said. Roberts was quoting a food industry study that projected a cost range for an average family would be between $50 to $1,050 a year. Roberts said the legislation "stops this wrecking ball before any more damage can be done."

Roberts said the bill would provide more information to consumers through their phones or websites, as well as create a voluntary label that would be crafted by USDA. Killing the legislation creates uncertainty in the marketplace, he added.

"Voting no today ensures the instability in the marketplace continues," Roberts said. "Voting no today, puts farmers and all of agriculture at risk. Voting no today negatively impacts the daily lives of everyone in the food chain, from the farmer who will be pressured to plant fencerow-to-fencerow of a crop that is less efficient, to the grain elevator that will have to adjust storage options to separate types of grain, to the manufacturer who will need different labels for different states, to the distributor who will need expanded storage for storing, and to the retailer who may be unable to offer low-cost private-label products, and finally to the consumer who will have to pay for all of this additional cost to the tune of $82 billion."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton