The Senate voted 49 to 48 not to advance a revised version of legislation calling for voluntary national biotech labeling standard that would basically block states from mandating labels on genetically engineered (GE) foods. The bill, originally introduced Feb. 19 by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance to the floor for full debate.
The revised version gave food companies two years to enroll 70 percent of their products in the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel program or face mandatory GMO-labeling policy from the federal government. Many lawmakers criticized Roberts’ bill claiming it would hide ingredient information from consumers by overturning state GMO labeling laws.
Interestingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supported the bill but voted against it invoking a procedural step that allows him to bring the legislation back to the floor if a compromise is reached with Democrats.
Today’s defeat is a win for Vermont’s law that requires labels on GE foods by July 2016 and bans use of the word “natural" and similar words that promote GE foods. Connecticut and Maine also have passed GE labeling laws, but they don’t take effect unless neighboring states adopt comparable measures.
Commenting on the defeat Chairman Roberts said: “Senators are judged by how they vote—not what they say. The Senators who voted against today’s biotechnology labeling solutions compromise voted against farmers—and ultimately consumers. When they go back to their home states next week, Senators who voted no will have to tell their constituents that their grocery bills will increase by over $1,000. That’s not a message I’d want to deliver."
With the GOP bill essentially stalled, focus now turns to an alternative bill introduced March 2 by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D.-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would ensure U.S. consumers can find GMO-ingredient labeling on food packaging while ensuring that food producers are not subject to confusing or conflicting labeling requirements in different locations.
Specifically, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act would require manufacturers four mandatory labeling options to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel:
- Manufacturers may use a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to indicate that this ingredient is “Genetically Engineered."
- Manufacturers may identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list.
- Manufacturers may simply apply a catch all statement at the end of the ingredient list stating the product was “produced with genetic engineering."
- FDA would have the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers that would clearly and conspicuously disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act, issued the following statement: “The Senate’s decision today to vote down this misguided GMO legislation is a victory for American consumers. This deceitful legislation was a brazen attack on a on a very important, basic consumer right: the right to know what is in your food. The right to know what you’re putting in your body. The right to know what you are serving on your children’s plate. This legislation would have undermined strong state GMO-labeling laws, like Connecticut’s, and thwarted efforts to ensure consumers have access to basic, on-package information about their food. The American people have overwhelmingly called for mandatory GMO labeling, and now it is time for us to take up commonsense legislation to provide a strong mandatory on-package GMO labeling standard."