WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Manufacturers would be required to label genetically modified foods on their packages under a bill introduced by four Democratic senators on Wednesday. The move is a sign of the difficulties Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will face in getting 60 votes for his bill to ban state labeling of genetically modified foods and to establish federal voluntary labeling.
The new bill was introduced by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Jon Tester of Montana and Diane Feinstein of California.
In a joint statement, the senators said their legislation "presents an alternative to a Senate Agriculture Committee bill that would hide ingredient information from consumers by overturning state GMO labeling laws."
The Senate Agriculture Committee passed the bill written by Roberts on Tuesday. The vote was 14-6, and three Democratic senators -- Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- voted with all the committee Republicans to advance.
Klobuchar and Donnelly have written their own federal voluntary labeling amendment, but Heitkamp has said she is not sure voluntary labeling is enough to satisfy consumers.
The statement from Merkley, Leahy, Tester and Feinstein also noted that the legislation is endorsed by Amy's Kitchen, Ben and Jerry's, Campbell Soup Company, Consumers Union, Just Label It, and Nature's Path.
"The legislation reflects Campbell's support for mandatory national standards for labeling of foods made with GMOs," said Kelly Johnston, vice president of government affairs for Campbell Soup.
"We applaud Sen. Jeff Merkley and his colleagues for responding to consumers' desire for the information they seek in a consistent and transparent manner."
Campbell has split with other food manufacturers and farm groups to announce that the company intends to label foods that include genetically modified ingredients and that it believes there should be national mandatory labeling for genetically modified organisms.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and chairman of Stonyfield Farms, an organic business, said, "I believe Sen. Merkley's bill is the kind of proposal that could bridge the divide between consumers and food companies on the issue of GMO labeling."
"This bill will give consumers the information they want, while allowing manufacturers the flexibility they say they need to implement mandatory, on-package labeling."
The Environmental Working Group said, "The Merkley bill is the kind of commonsense solution consumers have been waiting for."
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said, "This is what real disclosure looks like. This bill finds a way to set a national standard and avoid a patchwork of state labeling laws while still giving consumers the information they want and deserve about what's in their food."
In their statement Wednesday, the four senators said, "The Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act would allow American consumers to see whether a food has been prepared with GM ingredients, while offering food manufacturers several options for including this information on or near the ingredients list."
"This framework meets the needs of consumers, the vast majority of whom support labeling according to polls, and producers, who worry that a patchwork of state labeling laws would be costly and difficult to comply with and confusing for consumers."
Specifically, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act would amend the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel in one of four ways:
1. Manufacturers could use a parenthesis following an ingredient to indicate that the ingredient is "genetically engineered."
2. Manufacturers could identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list.
3. Manufacturers could apply a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredient list stating the product was "produced with genetic engineering."
4. The FDA would have the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers that would clearly disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging.
None of these options would require front-panel disclosures or "warning" statements intending to disparage GM ingredients, the senators noted.
"In addition to providing concrete disclosure options, today's GMO labeling bill would also provide regulatory certainty to national food manufacturers," the senators said.
"This legislative proposal represents a uniform federal GM labeling standard with sufficient flexibility to suit manufacturing operations of various sizes and markets, while also giving national manufacturers in compliance with the federal standard safe harbor from the potential patchwork of state laws.
Talking to reporters after the markup of his bill Tuesday, Roberts stressed the urgency of passing a bill before the Vermont GMO labeling law goes into effect on July 1.
But he also said that his staff and the staff of Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who favors mandatory labeling, "will meet to see if we can address concerns raised by the minority."
Roberts said he did not know if all Republican senators would support his bill as written, and noted that he needs 60 votes to end debate on the measure.
On Tuesday, Stabenow said, "There is a sense of urgency. Everything is on the table. There is a way to do this if people want to do it."
Stabenow declined to get into the details of her position such as the question of whether the mandatory information would have to be on the label or available through an app or website.
"We will wait 'til this is cooked," she said.
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