GMO food labeling bill does not pass in Senate

Following an emotional debate, the Senate blocked a bill that would prevent states from requiring labeling of genetically modified food Wednesday.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions Act (S2609), authored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., which would create a national voluntary labeling standard for genetically engineered foods, did not pass. Roberts had hoped to pass the bill before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect July 1.

Despite getting support from Democrats such as Agriculture Committeemembers Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota, he didn’t get the 60 votes he needed. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted against the bill.

The discussion before the vote ranged over issues of farming, food companies and consumers’ right to know what is in their food.

Roberts said it would prevent “a wrecking ball from hitting our entire supply chain,” referring to a potential patchwork of inconsistent state laws. He emphasized that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have all deemed genetically engineered foods safe. “It’s not about safety. It’s not about health. It’s not about nutrition. It’s all about marketing,” he said.

Bill supporters, including an industry lobby that called the bill the Safe Affordable Food Act, say such a patchwork would cost manufacturers $82 

billion a year, which they argue would be passed along to the average American family at $1,050 per year. (That estimate has been disputed by groups like Consumer Reports, which estimates the cost to consumers at pennies per day.)

Senate Democrats presented a different consumer perspective than Roberts, pointing to various polls showing that roughly 90 percent of Americans favor labeling of genetically engineered foods.

“Let’s be honest with the American public,” said Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has offered an alternative bill that would require national labeling of genetically engineered foods. “All they want is for us to be honest with them about ingredients.”

A last-minute amendment to the bill would call on manufacturers to provide toll-free numbers, websites, QR codes or social media symbols on labels to inform consumers whether genetically engineered ingredients are present in the product. If 80 percent of manufacturers fail to do that within three years, labeling of genetically engineered food would become mandatory nationally.

But Merkley said that wasn’t enough, especially since the toll-free numbers or QR codes could be presented without explanation.

“That’s why I call this a house of mirrors,” said Merkley, who said people shouldn’t have to spend an hour trying to find information.

Consumer and environmental groups applauded the defeat of Roberts’ bill.

“Today’s vote marked an important milestone for the more than 90 percent of Americans who want GMOs to be labeled,” saidTom Colicchio, celebrity chef and Food Policy Action co-founder, in a statement. “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.”