Merkley introduces biotech labeling solution

Just a day after the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 14-6 to advance a bill from Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) on how to address labeling foods that may contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) introduced another bill to add to the discussion.

Merkley’s bill would provide consumers with clear access to information about GM ingredients in foods while ensuring that food producers are not burdened by a confusing patchwork of state regulations.

Although Roberts’ bill was approved out of committee with support from three Democrats, he’ll need more than that for the bill to pass the full Senate. With Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on the campaign trail, he’ll need more Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster.

Merkley’s bill would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Panel in one of four ways: (1) using a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient, (2) identifying GM ingredients with an asterisk and providing an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list, (3) applying a catch-all statement at the end of the ingredient list stating that the product was “produced with genetic engineering” or (4) using a symbol developed by the Food & Drug Administration in consultation with food manufacturers. None of these options would require disclosures or “warning” statements on the front panel intending to disparage GM ingredients.

This legislative proposal represents a uniform federal GM labeling standard with sufficient flexibility to suit manufacturing operations of various sizes and markets while also giving national manufacturers that are in compliance with the federal standard safe harbor from the potential patchwork of state laws, according to a statement from Merkley’s office.

“Rather than blocking consumers’ access to information they want, the U.S. Senate should move forward with a solution that works for businesses and consumers alike. There is a way to give consumers the information they are asking for without placing unfair or conflicting requirements on food producers. This legislation provides the commonsense pathway forward,” Merkley said.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.). Leahy has been opposed to Roberts’ bill, saying it “undermines the public’s right to know” and “tramples states’ rights.”

During discussion of the markup in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, Leahy said the sky is not falling and there is still time to find a solution that works.

He added, “When you rush and panic to block consumers from getting access to this information, even to a tiny state like Vermont, it is saying, ‘Gee, producers must have something to hide.’”