GMO Food Labeling Bill Fails in Senate on Wednesday

Reuters writers  Lisa Baertlein and Karl Plume reported yesterday that, “The U.S. Senate on Wednesday blocked a bill that would nullify state and local efforts to require food makers to label products made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as the industry races to stop Vermont’s law from taking effect on July 1.

“The proposed legislation from Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas comes amid growing calls for transparency in the U.S. food supply. Labeling advocates have criticized the bill as toothless because it leaves the decision to disclose GMO ingredients to the companies whose products contain them.

“Senate Bill 2609 is known as the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act by supporters and the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK, Act by opponents. A procedural vote on Wednesday failed to reach the necessary 60 votes to advance the bill in the Senate, with 49 yes votes and 48 no votes.”

The article added that, “Roberts vowed to keep fighting as the July 1 deadline looms for Vermont’s labeling requirement to take effect.”

AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported yesterday that, “Republican senators were hoping to find compromise with Democrats who have supported mandatory labeling. The chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, tweaked the bill that advanced from his committee this month to require the Agriculture Department to measure whether food companies were using voluntary labels. If not enough companies were doing so in three years, the department would require the labeling.

“But that wasn’t enough for most Democrats.”

An update today at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition blog explained that, “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.”

And, Jason Huffman reported today at Morning Agriculture (Politico) that, “As expected, Roberts’ bill had trouble winning the support of Democrats. Just three crossed the aisle — Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — to vote in favor of cloture, while 41 voted against it. Eight Republicans, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), voted against the bill, while 45 voted for it. McConnell’s no vote was procedural, so he could bring the bill up again later, his office confirmed.

“Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who voted for the bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee, was among those to cast a ‘nay’ on the floor. The problem, she said, is that the concerns she raised at the time the committee was reviewing the measure still haven’t been fixed. ‘I remain hopeful that we can reach a compromise on a bill that avoids subjecting our entire food supply to a patchwork of state laws while creating a national uniform standard that works for consumers,’ she said.”

Christopher Doering added in today’s Des Moines Register that, “Roberts said earlier this week he would work on the bill once Congress returns from its Easter recess in April if it was unsuccessful Wednesday.

“The House passed its version of the legislation last summer.”

In addition, House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) indicated in a statement yesterday that, “There are many marketing techniques available to provide consumers with information about the products they choose to purchase. Biotechnology is not an issue of safety. Therefore, government mandated warning labels having nothing to do with product safety and serve no purpose other than to disparage one product over another. These Senators cannot continue to say that they are advocates for America’s farmers and ranchers when they consistently oppose those who provide the food we eat and the clothes on our backs.”

Meanwhile, DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton provided an overview of reaction to the Senate vote in an article yesterday.

Several Senators took time to discuss the GMO food labeling issue on the Senate floor Wednesday, links and excerpts below:

(Note: Some Senators debated this issue on the Senate floor on Tuesday, a recap of remarks and links to transcripts from these discussions can be found here.)

Ag Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.)- (full transcript)- “Consumers want information about the food they eat, it is as simple as that. In fact, the bill continues the status quo on providing information to consumers. It lists a number of things, many of which are already being done, 1–800 numbers and so on. Look at the back of the pack; it lists things, but they are things that are already being done—not all but many, enough—and then says: We will keep the status quo nationally, but we will preempt the States and citizens around the country from taking individual action. I don’t support that. That is not good enough. It doesn’t reflect what we do when we are talking about Federal policy. That is one reason I think the approach put forward in the bill is the wrong path.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska)- (full transcript) highlighted issues associated with genetically engineered salmon -“Genetically engineered animals are not crops, and GE salmon is a genetically engineered animal…[M]y concern is that with the GMO bill before us now, it really does threaten the good progress we have made at this point in time.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) (full transript)- “I also realize that California farmers may need to rely on genetic engineering to address challenges such as climate change and disease. But I do not understand why industry is so opposed to informing consumers of how their food was produced. The industry says it should only be required to label foods when there is a human health reason to do so.  However, the Federal Government has always had labeling requirements for food that aren’t due to a human health reason. These requirements exist because they allow consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace.”

Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kans.) (full transcript)- “The difficult issue for us to address is what to do about the patchwork of biotechnology labeling laws that will soon wreak havoc on the flow of interstate commerce, agriculture, and food products in every supermarket and every grocery store up and down Main Street of every community in America. That is what this is about. It is not about safety, it is not about health, and it is not about nutrition. It is all about marketing…[T]he fundamental role of the Agri- culture Committee is to protect American farmers and ranchers who provide a safe, abundant, and affordable food supply to a very troubled and hungry world. So I will be voting yes to do just that, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same. Voting no today means telling your constituents next week that you are raising their grocery bill by over $1,000. Good luck with that. It is a pretty simple vote. You are either for agriculture or you are not.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.) (full transcript)- “This morning, my good friend, Senator TOM CARPER from Delaware, and I filed an amendment that builds off the framework of the proposal before us today. A framework I first suggested in the Agriculture Committee markup of this very bill. It creates a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard. It stipulates that if food companies fail to make sufficient information available, then a national food labeling standard for bio-engineering becomes mandatory.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) (full transcript)- “Here is the situation: The Nation is very cynical about this body. This body here, they say, isn’t responding to the concerns of the American citizens. Is there any single bill that has been more an example to justify that cynicism than this bill which is before us right now? When 9 out of 10 Americans say this is important to them, the majority of this body says: We don’t care. When 9 out of 10—or roughly that number—Democrats and Republicans and Independents all agree on something, this body says: We don’t care. Isn’t the cynicism of the American citizens justified?”

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