| youtube, the commons

Senate battles over genetic food labels

The Senate appears poised this week to adopt mandatory federal labels for genetically modified food, but the effort is being disputed by a hard-core group of Democrats who say the proposed regulations are far too weak.

Despite floor speeches by proponents on Wednesday, including at least one prominent Democrat, five other Democrats — Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jon Tester of Montana and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — told reporters that loopholes, definitions and other alleged glitches in the bill make it far too inadequate.

At issue is more a struggle over the labeling requirements and the nature of food with genetically modified organisms (GMO) than philosophical differences over states’ rights versus federal law — although that is a lesser flash point. As with many agricultural issues, it also creates cross-party alliances between senators from rural states versus those from urban areas.

“We’re about to consider a bill that goes completely against what American citizens want,” Merkley said. “They particularly like ingredient labels, and they like to pick up a product, turn it over and easily see how many calories it has or whether it contains any ingredient they might be concerned about. They would like that same simple information on genetic food.

“Yet, here is a so-called mandatory labeling bill that in fact does the opposite — it denies Americans the right to know. It isn’t mandatory, doesn’t label and excludes most GMO foods.”

In March, the Senate blocked a bill by Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas that would have created a voluntary national standard for genetically modified food — but it would have stopped short of a federal mandate and pre-empted states from passing their own labeling laws. Roberts’ bill was specifically aimed at Vermont, which already enacted a mandatory labeling law this month that is one of the first in the nation.

That spurred Leahy and Sanders to action, saying they want to protect Vermont’s right to require labeling. Sanders has returned to the Senate after his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination fell short to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is not complicated,” Sanders added. “Americans have a right to know what they’re eating. That’s not a radical idea.”

“(Labeling) doesn’t mean you can’t buy it. It means you have to know what you’re getting,” Leahy added. “Vermont didn’t send me here to the Senate to be silent. Let’s have this debate.”

However, Republicans and other opponents point to the World Health Organization and the American Health Association, which have both endorsed genetic food as safe to consume. They also say companies may try to modify their food to avoid labeling requirements.

Indeed, the Senate appears poised to adopt a national standard — a slightly different version than the Roberts bill blocked in March. The new bill is championed by Roberts and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. A procedural vote on that bill passed the chamber on a 68-29 basis last week — eight votes more than necessary for actual passage.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill would require labels for genetically modified food, either by print on the package or with a QR code with an Internet link. Stabenow specifically said Wednesday that not passing the bill would create “a confusing patchwork of 50 different labeling requirements in 50 different states.”

The House already passed a GMO labeling law last year, although that version would have to be blended with the Roberts-Stabenow bill if it passes.

But the five Democrats said the bill has “grave defects.” For example, they said it fails to establish national standards for bio-engineered food, excludes some ingredients such as corn oil or soybean oil, and fails to give the U.S. Agriculture Secretary any authority to recall food. Further, they said consumers would face an “obstacle course” of having to look up a QR code and access the Internet.

While Merkley, Leahy, Sanders, Tester and Blumenthal were holding their press conference criticizing the bill, Stabenow was on the Senate floor at the same time defending it as “a place that makes sense for farmers and the food industry as well as consumers.

“For the first time, consumers in all 50 states will have a mandatory national GMO label on their food,” she said. “Right now, if we do nothing, Vermont and potentially a couple of other states get labeling. But if we vote ‘yes,’ everyone will have the opportunity to get more information about their food.”