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Senate chews on GMO food labeling bill

A bipartisan bill that aims to create a national labeling system for genetically modified foods advanced toward final approval Wednesday after a key floor vote in the U.S. Senate, but Sen. Bernie Sanders and other opponents panned the legislation as a recipe for disaster.

Senators called for cloture in a 65-32 vote, meaning that further debate would be limited to 30 hours prior to a final vote, which could come as early as today.

“This clears the pathway for a final vote on passage, and I remain optimistic sound science and affordable food will prevail,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in a prepared statement after the vote. “Both farmers and consumers deserve this certainly.”

Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, negotiated the compromise bill with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). During comments prior to Wednesday’s vote, Stabenow said the bill’s key achievements would be to recognize the scientific consensus that bio-engineered foods are safe, to help consumers better understand what is in their food and to avoid the creation of a patchwork of state labeling laws covering genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

One of the environmental and health organizations opposed to the compromise, the Center for Food Safety, did not immediately respond to an AMI Newswire request for comment, but the center’s executive director did issue a statement after Wednesday’s vote.

“It was written behind closed doors between a handful of senators and the big chemical and food companies,” Andrew Kimbrell said of the bill. “It is a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, a sham and a legislative embarrassment.”

Opponents faulted the wording of the legislation, saying that it gives bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the power to decide what percentage of GMO ingredients would require a product to be labeled.

Prior to the vote, Roberts defended the bill, saying that it had the support of more than 1,000 agriculture organizations. The bill would prevent a patchwork of state regulations that would ultimately burden farmers in the field and lead to higher prices for consumers.

“It’s not manufacturers that pay the ultimate price — it’s consumers,” Roberts said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee held hearings on the issue last fall, when the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the USDA all affirmed that there are no differences between GMO and non-GMO foods in terms of human health, he said.

The World Health Organization defines GMO crops as those plants whose genetic material — DNA — have been altered in a laboratory in a manner that does not occur in nature. One example of a GMO food is golden rice, which contains nutrients designed to prevent blindness and death from vitamin A deficiencies in developing nations.

Stabenow said that the labeling law contains needed flexibility for food companies. It gives them three options to tell consumers that a product contains GMO ingredients: a word message on the product packaging, a GMO symbol on the packaging or an electronic label that can be scanned by consumers with their smartphones, she said.

Stabenow cited surveys showing that 82 percent of American households now own smartphones and that that percentage would soon rise to 90 percent. In rural areas lacking easy access to such devices, additional store scanners would be provided, she said.

The Center for Food Safety, however, contends that the bill would deny more than 100 million Americans their right to know about GMO food ingredients because they might not have access to the relevant digital information. The groups affected include lower-income Americans, rural residents, minorities and elderly populations, the center said in a statement.

A group of passionate Senate Democrats charged that certain key crops would be excluded by the legislation. This charge gained traction among bill opponents because the FDA, in a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee, stated that the bill’s definition of “bio-engineering” opens the possibility that many GMO products would not be subject to the labeling bill.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said during Wednesday’s floor debate that Monsanto Co.’s three biggest products — high-fructose corn syrup made from GMO corn, oil made from GMO soybeans and sugar refined from genetically modified sugar beets — would not be covered by the bill. That’s because their genetic material has been stripped out during processing, Merkley said, so they would not be subject to GMO labeling.

During a press conference, Sanders defended Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which would be overridden by the federal legislation. The Vermont senator said the federal bill is completely unnecessary and that many companies are labeling their products in all the states through standardized packing as a result of Vermont’s law, which went into effect July 1.

“These companies started labeling under the Vermont GMO bill, and the sky did not fall in,” Sanders said.

Though opponents also faulted the federal bill for a lack of enforcement provisions against violators, Stabenow said that the bill would be enforced through existing state and federal consumer protection laws.

She also argued that the federal bill would be more comprehensive than Vermont’s law.

“The bill in front of us ensures that around 25,000 more products will be labeled than are labeled in Vermont or any of the other states that we are talking about,” Stabenow said.

This story reports on subsequent Senate action on a bill on which AMI reported yesterday, and adds new details.