Democrats to decide fate of GMO labeling bill

by Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON – Legislation blocking states from enacting their own labeling laws for products with genetically modified ingredients faces an uncertain future in the Senate this week.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is to vote Thursday on a bill that would pre-empt state labeling laws and authorize the Agriculture Department to set up national voluntary labeling standards. The GOP-led House passed its legislation last summer.

We “aren’t sure where Democrats stand on it yet,” Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters Tuesday.”It’s going to be very difficult to get it through the Senate if it isn’t bipartisan.”

Agricultural producers and the food industry back a voluntary program. They also contend if states enact their own labeling bills, food manufacturers and distributors would face higher costs to comply with each law and would those on to shoppers.

Consumer groups favor a mandatory effort, arguing that consumers have a right to know what is in the food they eat.

The race to get a bill in place comes as Vermont’s labeling law is expected to take effect in July. If Vermont’s initiative withstands a legal challenge, proponents say it could give momentum to similar measures being considered in more than a dozen other states.

The legislation was introduced Friday by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is chairman of the Senate panel.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., criticized the measure.

“This bill as currently drafted is another ploy to keep consumers in the dark,” he said. “American families have a right to know what they are eating, and this bill fails to accomplish that.”

Up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Biotech crops are popular in rural America, too, with more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans coming from the popular seeds.

A study released Monday by the Corn Refiners Association estimated Vermont’s law could increase the price of groceries for families by nearly $1,050 annually.

Consumers Union said the corn group “drastically overstates” the impact, putting it closer to $2.30 per person annually. The group has urged senators to oppose legislation.

“Consumers should be trusted to decide their own food choices, but Senator Roberts apparently thinks Washington knows best,” said Tom Colicchio, chef and founder of Food Policy Action.