The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted to pass a bill mandating labeling for genetically engineered (GE) foods, but the legislation has been denounced by critics as inadequate and riddled with loopholes.
Senate Bill 764 now moves to the House of Representatives for a debate and vote. If passed in the House and signed by President Obama, the bill would have the effect of preempting the nation’s first state GE-labeling law: Vermont’s Act 120, which took effect July 1.
The legislation would mandate labeling of GE foods, requiring the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a disclosure standard within two years after passage of the bill. The bill is intended to be less burdensome than Act 120 and offer the food industry multiple options to make the required disclosures, including via “a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link."
The Senate voted to approve the measure just days after Vermont’s GE-labeling law took effect.
“The timing of this legislation is not an accident," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said Wednesday during a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Its goal is to overturn and rescind the very significant legislation passed in the state of Vermont. I will do everything that I can to see that it’s defeated."
Sanders was unsuccessful.
The bill passed late Thursday in the Senate by a vote of 63 to 30, drawing the support of food interests.
“This strong, bipartisan Senate vote is a milestone moment in the efforts to provide consumers clear and consistent information about their food and beverage products and to prevent a patchwork of costly and confusing state labeling laws that would hurt consumers, farmers and businesses," said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in a statement.
GMA contended Vermont’s law already is producing negative consequences.
“Vermont’s mandatory on-package GMO [genetically modified organism] labeling law took effect on July 1 and consumers and small businesses in the state are already facing fewer products on the shelves and higher costs of compliance on small businesses," Bailey declared earlier this week.
Critics of the legislation said it has no teeth because it fails to carry any penalties or mandatory recall authority for foods out of compliance with the disclosure requirements. What’s more, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said the option to make disclosures through an electronic device would fall “short for consumers" who don’t have access to technology or the internet to learn what is in their food.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, described the legislation as “a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, a sham and a legislative embarrassment."
“It is deeply disturbing that a majority in the Senate would support a bill that openly discriminates against America's low income, rural and elderly populations," he said in a statement prior to the Senate vote. “This denies them their right to know simply because they are not able to afford or have access to smartphones. The bill itself is poorly drafted and would exempt many and perhaps most current genetically engineered foods from labeling."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, was equally critical of the legislation.
“There are clear defects in this law: the lack of a clear and stringent standard for labeling, the lack of enforcement, and the lack of transparency," he said Wednesday in a press conference. Following the Senate vote, Blumenthal described the bill as “fundamentally anti-consumer."
Others in the Senate who worked on the legislation defended it. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the legislation would close manifest loopholes under Vermont’s law that would have exempted tens of thousands of processed food products from the labeling requirements.
“Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food," she said last month in a statement.
However, Wenonah Hauter of the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch contended in a recent posting that the legislation’s definition of genetic engineering could exclude from the labeling requirements “some of the most pervasive GMO crops."
“This definition would exclude a wide variety of highly processed foods, from soybean oil to corn oil, corn syrup to sugar beets, and an array of other products that do not possess the actual genetic material after they have been processed," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said Thursday on the Senate floor.
A number of large food manufacturers have announced policies to label products containing GMOs, and not only in Vermont where it is required by law. In March, for instance, General Mills announced plans to roll out GE labels on its U.S. products; a General Mills executive explained the company “can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers."
“GMO labels can already be found on packages of Snickers, M&Ms, Lay’s Potato Chips, Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos and Smartfood Popcorn, among others," Hauter pointed out in her Food & Water Watch post. “But this bill would put an end to that."
In defending legislation that he said garnered the support of a coalition of more than 1,000 food and agriculture interests, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) argued state GE-labeling laws threaten farmers, food manufacturers and consumers who will face higher prices for food.
“The difficult issue for us to address is what to do about the patchwork of biotechnology labeling laws that soon will wreak havoc on the flow of interstate commerce of agriculture and food products and every supermarket, every grocery store, up and down every Main Street," he said Thursday on the Senate floor.
“If we don’t act today, what we face is a handful of states that have chosen to enact labeling requirements on information that has nothing to do with health, with safety or nutrition," the senator continued in his prepared remarks. “Unfortunately, the impact of those state decisions will be felt across the country and around the globe. Those decisions impact the farmers in fields who would be pressured to grow less efficient crops so manufacturers could avoid these demonizing labels."
Responding to concerns that have been expressed over the consequences of having a “patchwork" of state labeling laws, Leahy noted Vermont’s law is the only one that is in effect today. While Connecticut and Maine have GE-labeling laws, they don’t take effect unless neighboring states adopt similar measures.
“Even if they were to take effect," the senator said, “these three states have worked in tandem and all require that the same language – ‘Produced with Genetic Engineering’ – appear on the package."
But if Senate Bill 764 is signed into law, the possibility of such a required disclosure throughout New England—along with Vermont’s Act 120—will perish.
Editor's Note: Looking for more on GMO labeling and consumer expectations? Join us for the GMOs: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Opportunities panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 6, at SupplySide West 2016.