GMO ingredients under the bill
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan bill requiring foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled passed a key hurdle in the Senate Wednesday, clearing the way for a vote as soon as this week.
The Senate voted 65-32 to limit debate and advance the bill, despite a last-minute push from Democrats who said the measure was riddled with flaws and would lead to more confusion for consumers.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the agriculture committee, said of the legislation, also supported by ranking committee Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow: “It’s not the best possible bill, but it is the best bill possible under these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today.”
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst both voted to advance the bill.
Stabenow, D-Mich. called it “an important step forward” and encouraged her colleagues to support the agreement.
During the vote, a woman in the public Senate gallery started screaming “Vote No on the … act! It’s corporate legislation” and threw fistfuls of money onto the floor. She was removed.
The decision by Congress to move ahead with the labeling bill comes five days after Vermont’s first-in-the-nation labeling law took effect. Companies selling food in Vermont will have until next year to label their products with the words “produced with” or “partially produced with” genetically engineered ingredients.
If they fail to comply, they would be fined $1,000 for each day a product isn’t properly labeled.
As Vermont’s July 1 effective date approached, major food companies including General Mills and Campbell Soup announced their own GMO labels. An estimated 80 percent of packaged food products sold in the United States contain the controversial ingredients.
The food industry said consumers and businesses already are being hurt by the Vermont law.
“We saw over the weekend that the negative impacts of Vermont’s law are already hitting consumers and small businesses, with shoppers in Vermont seeing fewer options on the shelves,” said Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and co-chair for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. “Ultimately, this could lead to higher prices and even lost jobs in other states.”
The Senate bill would allow major food makers to select from among three options to notify consumers if a product contains GMO ingredients. They could disclose GMO ingredients on the package using words or a symbol created by the USDA, or they could adopt an electronic option such as a QR code.
Small food manufacturers would be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements, while those defined as very small, along with restaurants, would be exempt.
Several Democratic senators, along with consumer and environmental groups, blasted the legislation as catering to the interests of the food industry and contrary to the wishes of most consumers, who want to know what is in the food they buy.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other lawmakers complained to reporters that the bill exempts many foods from the labeling standards, lacks enforcement teeth for companies that fail to comply and depends on a flawed QR code that would confuse shoppers.
“The Roberts-Stabenow bill contains numerous loopholes and is totally inefficient in terms of addressing the needs of the American people who want to know what is in the food they consume,” said Sanders, an independent who traditionally caucuses with Democrats. “It is pretty much an anti-consumer bill.”
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director with the Center for Food Safety, said the bill discriminates against low income, rural and elderly populations.
“It was written behind closed doors between a handful of Senators and the big chemical and food companies,” he said. “It is a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, a sham and a legislative embarrassment.”
The Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern the bill’s use of the words “that contains genetic material” could mean some ingredients such as highly refined sugars and oils made from commodities such as soybeans do not need to be labeled. The reason is because they have been processed to a point where they do not have any detectable amount of biotech material.
The USDA has dismissed those claims. It said last week the bill gives it the authority to require labels on everything on the grocery store shelf that contains genetically modified organism ingredients approved by the department, including those questioned by the FDA.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Wednesday the bill’s goal is to deny the public’s right to know. The USDA, which he said has supported a QR code, “is a full partner in that vision,” he said. ‘It is the wrong vision for Americans.”