GMO labeling bill fails to muster enough support in Senate

by Great Falls Tribune

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate failed Wednesday to advance a bill that would have prevented states from requiring that genetically modified ingredients in food be labeled.

Forty-eight senators voted to stop debate and advance the bill – 12 short of the 60 votes needed under Senate rules. Forty-nine lawmakers voted against the measure.

Montana’s delegation in the Senate was split on the vote.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who voted against it and has been a vocal critic of the labeling ban, called the defeat “a victory for transparency and for the American consumer. This is exactly the type of shady corporate ruse that the Senate should be protecting the public against.”

Republican Sen. Steve Daines favored advancing the bill. “Labeling decisions should based on sound science, not on marketing efforts that have no bearing on health, food safety or nutrition,” he said,

The rejection was a blow to Republican lawmakers and food industry representatives, who had hoped to stop Vermont’s GMO labeling law from going into effect in July and prevent other states from moving forward with their own laws. They argued that complying with each state’s regulations would be costly and result in higher prices for consumers.

“Our decision today is about whether or not to prevent a wrecking ball from hitting our entire food supply chain,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and who proposed the bill. “The senators who voted against today’s biotechnology labeling solutions compromise voted against farmers – and ultimately consumers.”

Roberts said earlier this week he would work on the bill once Congress returns from its Easter recess in April if it was unsuccessful Wednesday.

The House passed its version of the legislation last summer.

The Senate bill would ban states from establishing their own labeling laws. Instead, it would create a voluntary program where producers could put “smart labels” on their products that allow consumers to find out more nutrition and ingredient information online or by calling a toll-free number.

The food industry would have three years to bring 70 percent of its products into compliance or the Agriculture Department would be allowed to make the labeling requirement mandatory.

Up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the food industry. Biotech crops are popular in agricultural states such as Iowa, where more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans come from the seeds.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and lawmakers opposed to adding mandatory labels on products made with GMOs say such labels could cause consumers to believe the products are unsafe.

A study from the Corn Refiners Association has estimated Vermont’s law could increase the price of groceries for families by nearly $1,050 annually. Others have called that estimate wildly exaggerated.

Democrats and consumer groups who oppose the bill questioned the effectiveness of a voluntary program.

While they have acknowledged that different state laws would not work, they contend consumers have a right to know what is in their food through a mandatory program. They called Wednesday’s vote a win for consumers.

“The defeat … is a major victory for the food movement and America’s right to know,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “It also is an important victory for democracy over the attempt of corporate interests to keep Americans in the dark about the foods they buy and feed their families.”