G.M.O. labeling: Back to the drawing board?

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — A cloture vote to advance the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas failed on March 16. The vote was not close with 49 senators voting to deny cloture while 48 senators voted in favor. To secure cloture and advance the bill to a final vote, the measure would have required the support of 60 senators.  

The measure before the Senate was similar but not identical to the bill approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry by a vote of 14 to six on March 1. Committee Democrats who voted in favor of advancing the bill at that time cautioned they would not vote for the bill on the Senate floor unless improvements were made addressing how consumers would be informed about whether individual food products or their ingredients were manufactured via bioengineering. The changes offered in the revised Roberts bill fell short of the improvements sought.

The bill as presented to the full Senate would have established a voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard and would have prevented states and other levels of government from establishing mandatory bioengineered food labeling requirements that were different from the national voluntary standard.

G.M.O. labeling activists
The bill as presented to the full Senate would have established a voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.

In order to make the bill more acceptable to senators searching for means to clearly indicate to consumers the presence of bioengineered ingredients in foods, the revised measure included provisions “providing an incentive for the marketplace to provide more information” about food products

The revised bill would have required “if a food is voluntarily labeled under this section through means of scannable images or codes or other similar technologies, the label clearly indicates to consumers that more information is available about the ingredients of the food; and the scannable image, code or similar technology provides direct access to information regarding whether the food is bioengineered or whether bioengineering was used in the development or production of the food.”

The revised bill held out the possibility of establishing a mandatory standard along the same lines of the voluntary standard in the event after three years there was not “substantial” industry participation in providing consumers access to information about food products under the voluntary standard.

Neither the voluntary nor possible mandatory standard would require text on a product label or packaging disclosing whether the product was manufactured by means of bioengineering.

If a mandatory standard were to be established, it would require a statement made on the food label or labeling “or means other than the label or labeling, including responses to consumer inquiries through call centers, the Internet, web sites, social media, scannable images or codes or similar technologies that would allow consumers to access the information” about the food product.

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas
Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas

Mr. Roberts, following the cloture vote, said, “If we do not act, everyone loses. I have acted to provide a responsible, enforceable, scientific and proactive approach to arm consumers with the information they want to make informed choices about what to put on the dinner table.” Mr. Roberts added, “My approach to labeling acknowledges what many American consumers forget: our food is abundant, affordable and safe. We must continue our reliance on science and technology to ensure our continued prosperity. I remain at the ready to work on a solution to a critical problem that will face every American every day”.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee said on the floor in advance of the vote, “Unfortunately, the Roberts proposal is nothing more than the status quo for consumers who want information about the food they are purchasing. I believe that if the federal government is going to take away states’ rights, we have the obligation to create a national system of disclosure that provides information to consumers in an easily accessible way.”

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who voiced his opposition to the bill on the Senate floor, said, “Today is a victory for American consumers. Ordinary Americans stood up and fought back against special interests, and this vote is a testament to their efforts. I stand ready to work with my colleagues to find a path forward that provides a national standard with a consumer-friendly solution.”

Chuck Conner, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
Chuck Conner, president and c.e.o. of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

Responding to the Senate vote, Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives said, “This is the most pressing issue currently facing the food and agriculture industries, so it is disappointing that despite nearly 800 groups united in support behind this reasonable solution, the Senate could not get it across the finish line today.”

Pamela G. Bailey, G.M.A.
Pamela G. Bailey, president and c.e.o. of the G.M.A.

Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer, Grocery Manufacturers Association, stated, “Despite today’s vote, there continues to be a strong bipartisan consensus to protect American consumers from the increased food costs and confusion of a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. G.M.A. is committed to rolling up our sleeves to work with Chairman Roberts and Senator Stabenow so that the Senate can enact a bipartisan solution in the near future.”

Meanwhile, Vermont’s mandatory bioengineered food labeling bill is scheduled to take effect July. 1.

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