March 2, 2016
The debate over genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GMO) food labeling has been fiercely contested for years. While many large corporations have staunchly resisted demands from “right to know” groups, others, like the Campbell Soup Company, have sided with consumer advocacy groups and voluntarily decided to label their products. The right to know debate has been heating up on the Hill, and as new bills hit the floor we can anticipate things may come to a boil soon.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) is now trying to engineer the passage of controversial legislation which would pre-empt Vermont’s mandatory labeling of GE food and farm products and establish a process for creating a national standard for voluntary labeling.
During consideration of the bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, March 1, three Democrats – Senators Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Amy Klobuchar (MN) – joined all the Committee Republicans in advancing the chairman’s legislation. The final tally was 14-6. Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was a notable holdout against the bill. Stabenow has been adamant in her support for mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients, and continues to work with members of the committee on developing compromise legislation for consideration on the floor.
The 2015 House bill and Senator Robert’s bill both aim to preempt the implementation of Vermont’s mandatory GE labeling law, which goes into effect on July 1 of this year. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is on record opposing both measures, though we strongly support national mandatory labeling.
The controversial nature and general lack of agreement on this topic in the Senate has been underscored by the introduction of a competing bill by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Jon Tester (D-MT), which would require mandatory disclosure of GE ingredients.
Like the Roberts bill, the Merkley bill would preempt the ability of states to create their own GE labeling requirements, but it would also mandate disclosure of GE ingredients on product labels on a nationwide basis. The legislation offers four different options for compliance. Food companies could:
Earlier this year, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in the House, also weighed in on GE labeling. The reintroduced legislation, called the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, would also require the Food and Drug Administration to create a national system and standard for labeling GE food and foods containing GE ingredients.
During the Senate Agriculture Committee’s markup of Robert’s preemption bill, Senator Joe Donnelly, with support from Senator Amy Klobuchar, introduced an amendment that was a complete substitute for the Roberts bill. The amendment was withdrawn from consideration prior to a vote. Donnelly’s amendment is widely expected to form the basis for a potential compromise as the bill is readied for consideration on the floor of the Senate.
Like Roberts’ bill, Donnelly’s would have preempted state labeling laws and created a national voluntary GE labeling system based on the industry touted “SmartLabel” system. Donnelly’s bill would also include a path to mandatory disclosure nationwide if, and only if, after three years, less than 85 percent of GE products were covered by the voluntary system. Even then, however, the mandatory system under the Donnelly approach could be SmartLabel or other similar smartphone/Quick Response (QR) code options that would require consumers to use smartphones to hunt for GE product information on a website, not on the food package.
NSAC’s policy on GE crops supports a consumer’s right to know what is in their food, and recognizes the need for a mandatory federal GE food-labeling regime. The Boxer-Blumenthal bill is thus in keeping with our policy, though we do feel the additional details of the new Merkley-Leahy-Tester bill are promising and merit additional discussion and analysis. The Donnelly amendment, in our opinion, is barely different from the underlying text of the Roberts bill, and is not something NSAC could support in anything like its current form.
With the effective date of the Vermont labeling law looming, it is clear there is interest in passing national legislation, yet it is not at all clear that there are enough votes in the Senate (60 are needed) to pass any of the presented labeling bills or amendments. If the legislation stalls, as seems quite possible, anti-labeling industry groups may try instead for a policy rider in must-pass government funding bills during the annual appropriations process.
However, the joining together of three agricultural appropriators – Senators Merkley, Leahy, and Tester – to require national mandatory disclosure sends a strong signal that the policy rider approach would be anything but a slam dunk in the Senate.
We will continue to inform readers of any new developments if and when the legislation makes its way to the Senate floor.