A bill to create national standards for food made with genetically engineered ingredients, or GMOs, failed in the Senate on Wednesday.
The bipartisan legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), would have established a uniform voluntary GMO labeling standard to be developed by USDA within two years of the bill’s enactment. The bill also would have prohibited any state from setting separate GMO labeling requirements and also included an educational component to inform consumers about the safety and accessibility of information on agricultural biotechnology.
Proponents of the bill expressed disappointment Wednesday.
National Grocers Association (NGA) President and CEO Peter J. Larkin said, “NGA appreciates Chairman Pat Roberts’ efforts to implement a federal legislative solution to address the patchwork of state labeling laws for foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. We believe that a uniform standard that preempts state labeling laws strikes the right legislative balance to provide consumers with access to information that is consistent and transparent. While we are disappointed that the Senate was unable to invoke cloture on this important bill, we will continue to look to a path forward for a solution.”
Food Marketing Institute (FMI) President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin said, “The United States Senate voted today on cloture on a proposal offered by Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts that would do two critical things: 1) establish a national standard for labeling food products that contain GMO ingredients; and 2) preempt any other state approaches that differ from this national standard.
“Based on our conversations with senators and their staff members, 98 percent of the U.S. Senate seems to agree this would be the right thing to do. Sadly, the question in this debate, and in so many others in the Senate, is how to get 60 senators who agree on the need for the same policy approach to do what is needed to achieve the goal. We have argued the urgency of the situation for many months and, as predicted, have already heard from companies that have had packaging that complies with the GMO labeling required by the state of Vermont rejected by other inconsistent state GMO labeling schemes.
“Today, in spite of weeks and weeks of talks among leaders on both the majority and minority sides of the Senate, as well as thousands and thousands of letters, emails, calls and personal visits from leaders in the grocery industry urging that a solution be found, 60 senators were not willing to coalesce around a single approach that could achieve 60 votes.
“The real loss is for our grocery customers who are accustomed to enjoying low prices and an abundant availability of products due to tremendous advances of U.S. agriculture and the historical standard in the U.S. that requirements for food labeling be consistent and limited to issues related to health and safety. We know a patchwork system will drive up costs; we will monitor closely to determine the impact. We know we now will have a de facto national GMO labeling system, one that not only has been established by Vermont but also one that exempts from its requirements two of its home state product categories, dairy and maple syrup, and one that very few other than those in Vermont seem to think is the best way to achieve informed disclosure to consumers.
“We offer our deepest thanks to 48 senators who voted yes, even though they might not have thought that in a perfect world the Roberts proposal was the best solution.”
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food issued the following statement: “This is the most pressing issue currently facing the food and agriculture industries, so it is disappointing that, despite nearly 800 groups united in support behind this reasonable solution, the Senate could not get it across the finish line today,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Added Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), “Despite today’s vote, there continues to be a strong bipartisan consensus to protect American consumers from the increased food costs and confusion of a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. GMA is committed to rolling up our sleeves to work with Chairman Roberts and Sen. (Debbie) Stabenow so that the Senate can enact a bipartisan solution in the near future.”
Snack Food Association President Tom Dempsey said, “We are extremely disappointed that the Senate could not come together today to support a bipartisan solution that would have called for unprecedented disclosure of ingredient information to consumers and prevented a chaotic patchwork of state laws from taking effect. The Snack Food Association’s members are committed to meeting consumer demand for information, but we urgently need Congress to come together to set clear guidelines that don’t lead to confusion, increased grocery bills and crippling costs for food manufacturers. We view today’s result as a major failure on behalf of our Congress to stand up and do the right thing for American food and agricultural business, as well as for consumers.
“Small and midsized companies will be hit the hardest by the state-by-state approach to mandatory labeling if the Senate does not quickly reach a compromise. We must find a solution that establishes federal guidelines for GMO labeling that does not stigmatize a technology that has been proven safe and beneficial. Only Congress has the ability to prevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling laws from beginning to take effect in July 2016. The time to act is now.
“We thank Chairman Roberts for his leadership and will continue to work toward a bipartisan agreement.”
The bill’s opponents, on the other hand, who refer to the legislation as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act,” praised the Senate vote.
Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, said, “Today’s Senate vote is a victory for consumers and everyone who wants the right to know what’s in our food. The Roberts’ measure, backed by the food industry, shows the contempt of our nation’s large food companies for their own customers, who overwhelmingly support labeling of genetically engineered food. The industry campaign for the DARK Act will only accelerate consumer distrust of large food companies and their processed food. In other words, the bill’s proponents will reap what they have sown.”
Tom Colicchio, Food Policy Action co-founder and chef, said, “Today’s vote marked an important milestone for the more than 90 percent of Americans who want GMOs to be labeled. I am hopeful that the Senate will now work to craft a bipartisan mandatory on-pack GMO labeling bill that doesn’t demonize science and gives consumers the information they demand.”
Numerous states currently are looking at enacting their own labeling rules; Vermont is set to require its own set of labels beginning in July.