June 24, 2016
Despite what feels like endless “controversy”, national polls have overwhelmingly shown that the vast majority of American consumers want the use of genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) noted on their food labels. Last year, however, the House of Representatives chose to disregard the overwhelming support for GE/GMO labeling and passed a bill to preempt states seeking mandatory, on-package GMO labeling. Instead, the House offered consumers a weak and ineffective voluntary labeling program, one that would leave consumers confused and unable to make easy, informed food purchasing choices.
While GMO debate moved rapidly in the House, things in the traditionally more deliberative Senate took a slower route. In March 2016 a similarly weak GMO labeling bill, which had squeaked through the Senate Agriculture Committee, was defeated 48-49 – far short of the 60 votes needed for passage. Several months of behind the scenes negotiating later, however, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced on Thursday, June 23 they had reached a deal. The Senators stated that they hope to bring the bill to the Senate floor next week for a vote.
If passed, the Senate deal would preempt state authority and nullify Vermont’s GMO labeling law – Vermont’s bill is the first legislation of its kind in the nation and is set to take on effect July 1. In place of state authority, the Senate deal would establish a complex federal “bioengineered” food disclosure system that would give large food companies three options for labeling GMO ingredients: a barcode or QR code that could be accessed by smartphones to find more information about the product, a symbol (to be created by USDA) on the package, or an actual on-package statement that the product contains GMOs.
Under this type of system, each company would be free to choose for themselves whether or not to make GMO information easily accessible and understandable for consumers. Consumers, conversely, would have no choice as to the way they received information about their food.
To make things even more confusing, smaller food companies would have two additional options for disclosing GMO ingredients – providing a telephone number or a website where the consumer could go to find out about any GMOs in the product. Very small food companies would be exempt. USDA would define small and very small in new regulations.
Other aspects of the deal include:
Immediately after the Senate bill’s release, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) came out in support:
“I’m proud our efforts have produced a bipartisan compromise to give farmers and ranchers certainty and give consumers the information they want about their food,” said Heitkamp. “Critically, this deal guarantees that any labeling doesn’t stigmatize biotech food, which is safe and helps North Dakota farmers put food on the table for families in North Dakota, the United States and the world.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) also issued a statement, but in strong opposition to the bill:
“I am very proud that Vermont has led the country in GMO labeling. This bill would preempt what Vermont and other states have done. GMO labeling exists in dozens of countries around the world. It is not controversial. Already major food companies in our country have begun labeling their products. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat. I am going to do everything I can to defeat this legislation.”
Over the coming days, the yet undecided Senators will determine how they will vote. Sixty votes are needed to pass the bill. Common wisdom on Capitol Hill (which, of course, is not always right) is that the bill will pass, though it may well be close.
The House has adjourned until July 5, so even if the Senate were to vote on the measure next week, there is no chance of the House taking up a Senate-passed measure or initiating a House-Senate conference to settle differences between the two bills until after the Vermont law goes into effect on July 1.
Moreover, after July 5 there are but nine legislative days left before both houses of Congress adjourn for the rest of the summer, making it unlikely a bill will reach the President’s desk before the next recess. We will report on the final outcome, if and when the dust settles.