Ag Policy Blog

Senate Passes GMO Label Bill

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Senate late Thursday passed the genetically modified foods disclosure and labeling bill written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

The vote was 63 to 30.

The vote on final passage took place after a vote on a motion by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to open up the process to allow amendments that Democrats and Republicans had offered to strengthen the labeling requirements. That motion failed by a vote of 30 to 63.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill preempts state GMO labeling laws, including the one in Vermont that went into effect on July 1 and establishes a federal system of mandatory disclosure of genetically modified ingredients to be administered by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

Supporters of the bill portray it as a compromise that requires GMO labeling and protects organic labeling, but opponents said its provisions allowing companies to choose between a word label, a symbol and a scannable link to a website is too weak.

Opponents also said that the bill would not require the labeling of foods that come from genetically engineered seed but do not contain genetically modified material, although the USDA general counsel has said the department does have the authority to require labeling of those foods.

The next step is up to the House, which passed a voluntary labeling bill last summer. The House could demand to go to conference on the two bills, but is under pressure from the food industry to take up the Senate version so that the bill could be sent to President Barack Obama before Congress goes into recess on July 15 until September.

In a floor speech before the vote, Stabenow said that, even though the Vermont senators led the opposition to the bill, “the people of Vermont should feel very good about what they have done. They will get us to a national labeling standard.”

Holding up a map, Stabenow pointed out that if the federal law did not pass, only consumers in New England “would know” there are genetically modified ingredients in their food.

Stabenow also noted that she had been able to include all four items that the Organic Trade Association had raised and that she made sure federal and state consumer protection laws apply to the bill for enforcement purposes.

Reacting to the Food and Drug Administration’s criticism of the bill, Stabenow noted that the labeling is not a health and food safety issue “but an information issue,” and therefore not in the FDA’s jurisdiction.

“I believe in supporting all parts of agriculture, not just one group against each other,” Stabenow said. The farm bill, she noted, included big increases in organic resarch and money for food hubs.

Although the bill gives companies the option of an on-package word label, a symbol or a scannable code telling consumers that they can get more information, Stabenow said the presence of a scannable code “will give you a pretty good hint there are GMOs” in the product.

“Companies, consumers and grocery stores will drive this,” Stabenow said, referring to the expected consumer campaigns to urge food providers to opt for on-package labels.

Vermont Sens Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, an independent, both criticized the Senate bill in separate floor speeches Thursday. Leahy said the bill reflects "millions and millions of dollars of lobbying and campaign contributions" from agriculture and food groups.

"We will listen to well financed lobbyists and campaign contributors, but we won't listen to 90% of the people," Leahy said.

Leahy noted the Vermont law had 50 hearings with 130 witness and two years of debate while the Senate bill had zero hearings and less than one week of debate.

Sanders noted that it could take at least two years for USDA to draft labeling rules. He also noted the bill has no enforcement mechanisms or penalties if companies violate the law. Sanders said "it is not a serious piece of legislation."

The food and agricultural lobbies had come together to create the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food specifically to preempt the Vermont labeling law. The group praised the Senate action late Thursday, calling it "common-sense bipartisan legislation" that will provide a consistent, disclosure framework.

“The Senate has provided all Americans a transparent and consistent system of disclosure that will give consumers access to more product information than ever before, and we urge the House to consider this legislation next week” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and CFSAF co-chair. “Nearly 1,100 organizations in the food-producing community are united behind this bill to set a uniform, national standard that protects American family farmers and small businesses. Today’s vote means that both chambers of Congress have had strong bipartisan votes to set a national standard and avoid the higher costs and consumer confusion from a patchwork of state labeling laws.”

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.

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BDukowitz1375121425
7/8/2016 | 11:49 AM CDT
"Not for sale or not to be consumed in Vermont!" Would solve much of the issue. Would also be inexpensive to label.
MFAY2141040305
7/8/2016 | 10:07 AM CDT
I know that posting here is like preaching to the choir, so I'll try to keep that in mind. It's funny how the whole food labeling bill was driven by the concept of "people should know where their food comes from". In talking with people, I try to inform them that food could be more available, to more people, because of things like drought tolerance and insect resistance. Not once have I said that it is better nutritionally or better health wise than "organic" or supposedly "natural" foods. The whole issue with the labeling law is that it doesn't tell the consumer much at all. "This product may or may not contain genetically engineered products". What is a consumer supposed to take that to mean? Is it dangerous? Can I be allergic to it? Is it better? Is it worse? Congress could have done a far better job of educating the public by buying ad time and saying "Most of the foods you buy today have been genetically altered, either naturally or through scientific means. If you want to buy and eat organic food, it can be labeled as such and already is". End of story! The most common thing I heard from legislators when "lobbying" them on this topic was, farmers need to come up with a definitive term describing GMO's. Something the public will understand. With 1.something percent of farmers in production agriculture, that is a very daunting task, considering the opposition that is out there spreading misinformation at best.