March 17, 2016
The debate over the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered or genetically modified (GMO) ingredients casts a wide net. In addition to the traditional food, agriculture, and business interests you might expect to be involved, the GMO labeling debate has pulled in countless other interest groups, from states’ rights activists to concerned parents. Farmers, consumers, and business interests have been aggressively lobbying members of Congress as various GMO labeling bills were considered and, this week, supporters of nationwide mandatory labeling snagged a significant victory.
On Wednesday, March 16, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) attempted to invoke cloture on his controversial GMO labeling bill. Roberts’ legislation, which would pre-empt state laws requiring mandatory labeling of GMO food and farm products and instead establish a voluntary national labeling program, was widely opposed by a broad coalition of organizations, including NSAC.
If passed, the motion to invoke cloture would have ended debate on the Roberts bill and advanced it to a vote. In what has been seen as an early and important victory for mandatory labeling advocates, the motion to invoke was soundly defeated with 49 opposed and 48 voting in favor. Cloture requires 60 votes.
Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly (IN), Tom Carper (DE) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) joined Republicans in voting yes, while a number of Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in voting no. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) all voted no. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also voted no, but purely for procedural reasons – a vote of no allows him to move forward with a motion to reconsider the legislation at a later time.
After originally voting yes in a vote to pass the bill out of the Agriculture Committee, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined the majority of her fellow Democrats in voting against the motion to invoke cloture. Independent Senator Angus King (I-ME) also voted against cloture. NSAC applauds all of the Senators who voted against cloture, and who recognized that this bill failed to address the overwhelming public demand for mandatory labeling.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were all on the campaign trail and not present for the vote. Sanders however did issue a statement applauding the outcome.
Anyone who thought the bill advanced on Wednesday seemed different from Roberts’ original legislation had valid reasons for feeling confused. The bill placed on the floor for consideration by Roberts was not the same bill as was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Roberts had filed a substitute bill on Monday, which provided a path to mandating the industry-backed “SmartLabel” alternative to on-package labeling should 70 percent of the industry fail to adopt the system after a period of years. Simultaneous with the filing of the new bill, Senate Republican leadership immediately filed for cloture so as to limit debate and opportunities to amend the bill.
During the floor debate, Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN) discussed an amendment that he had filed with Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). Like the Roberts bill, Senator Donnelly’s amendment would preempt state labeling laws and create a national voluntary GMO labeling system based on industry’s “SmartLabel” approach, but also included mention of a “direct access” telephone line being required on any label using an 800-line alternative.
Donnelly’s amendment includes a path to mandatory nationwide system, but it would not require on-package labeling and would only take effect if, after three years, less than 80 percent of GMO products weren’t covered by the voluntary system.
Under both the Roberts and Donnelly-Carper approaches, a mandatory system, should it ever be triggered, would allow use SmartLabel or a similar smartphone/Quick Response (QR) code option, or an 800-line option. In such a system, consumers in the grocery store would either have to be able to find and utilize the QR code, if they own a smartphone and have it with them, or try their luck with an 800-line phone number, to get the basic product information they need.
Last year, the House of Representatives passed an even worse bill (H.R. 1599) seeking to preempt the ability of states to require the mandatory labeling of GMO products and ingredients by a 275-150 vote.
Both the 2015 House bill and Senator Roberts’ legislation are attempts to block the implementation of Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law, which goes into effect on July 1 of this year. NSAC supports a nationwide approach, but is on record opposing both the House and Roberts measures, as well as the Donnelly amendment. NSAC has vocally supported national mandatory labeling legislation; legislation that has been proposed in the past by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and most recently by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
At this time, the future of GMO labeling legislation remains unclear. But with limited time left on the Senate calendar and the effective date of the Vermont legislation looming, the issue is far from over.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow (D-MI) have vowed to continue negotiations in an effort to find compromise. However, Senator Stabenow has made it clear that – while she wishes to find an acceptable compromise – the “status quo” approach offered by Senator Roberts is wholly inadequate.
If a compromise is reached, the bill may be back on the Senate floor in April. We are hopeful that any compromise that can gain the votes needed to pass the Senate will include mandatory on-package notification of GMO ingredients in some manner.
To learn more about the competing labeling bills, read NSAC’s previous blog post on the subject here.