GMO free and GMO Labels
Senate ag committee approves bill establishing voluntary program and prohibiting states from creating their own labeling standards.

WASHINGTON — Congress moved one step closer to making the labeling of products containing bioengineered ingredients voluntary. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on March 1 by a 14-to-6 vote approved a bill drafted by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee chairman, that would establish a national voluntary standard and prohibit any state from requiring the mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods or ingredients.

Several committee members asserted the importance of sending the bill promptly to the full Senate in view of the fact Vermont’s mandatory labeling bill is set to take effect July 1. Some committee members voted to advance the bill while stating their vote on the final legislation would be contingent on improvements that they said were required to address the concerns of citizens who want to know whether their food was manufactured by means of bioengineering.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill would require within two years of its enactment the establishment of a national bioengineered food labeling standard. It would prohibit states or political subdivisions of states from directly or indirectly establishing bioengineered food labeling requirements that are not identical to the national voluntary standard. It also would preempt existing laws requiring mandatory labeling of bioengineered food.

The bill also would require the provision by federal agencies of “science-based information, including any information on the environmental, nutritional, economic, and humanitarian benefits of biotechnology, through education, outreach and promotion to address consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.”

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas
Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas

“It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue, it is a market issue,” said Mr. Roberts in his opening statement at the mark-up session. “This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

“Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws. It sets national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered.”

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the committee, opposed the chairman’s mark-up. Ms. Stabenow acknowledged biotechnology is safe and is an important tool for farmers in meeting world food needs and addressing challenges of climate change, and she agreed a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws was not a workable solution. But she added she recognized consumers want to know more about the food they eat.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan

“As I have said from the beginning of this process, for a solution, which includes a 50-state preemption, to receive the broad support necessary to pass the Senate, it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices,” she said.

Ms. Stabenow said while she was disappointed a bipartisan compromise was not reached before the bill’s mark-up, “I realize this is just the first step in the Senate process.” She pledged to seek improvements to the bill when it’s taken up by the full Senate that would address consumer concerns.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, former chairman of the agriculture committee, whose state’s mandatory bioengineered foods labeling law is poised to take effect this summer, said he strongly opposed the bill. Mr. Leahy asserted the measure “trampled on states’ rights,” and he challenged studies suggesting the Vermont law and similar laws that may be enacted would result in “catastrophic losses” for the food industry or a spike in consumer food prices. He also noted the Food and Drug Administration already provided an avenue for voluntary labeling of bioengineered foods.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont

“This is a solution looking for a non-existent problem,” he said.

Among Democrats voting to advance the bill to the full Senate were Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who said they would continue working on compromise language that would make the bill more responsive to consumers’ right to know whether a food was bioengineered while assuring the public bioengineered foods are in fact as safe and in instances even more nutritious than their non-bioengineered counterparts.