A bill that would “amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national voluntary labeling standard for bioengineered foods,” passed the Senate Agricultural Committee by a vote of 14-6.The legislation, introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in late February, create a federal voluntary standard for labeling genetically modified or engineered ingredients, and block mandatory labeling efforts by states.
Genetically modified or engineered seeds are engineered to have certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides. The majority of the United States’ corn and soybean crops are now GE, including a large portion that is used for animal feed.
The Huffington Post reports that a Senate vote could come as early as next week. The Post also reports that Roberts bill has support from ConAgra, DuPont, Coca-Cola and Walmart. Roberts’ bill is similar to the controversial Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which passed the House in June 2015. To critics, the bill was known as the “DARK” (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act because the law would have effectively nullified GE labeling measures, such as the bill recently passed in Vermont. The Vermont law is scheduled to take effect July 2016. Senator Roberts’ new bill would prevent the Vermont bill from becoming law. Lawmakers say that a new bill is necessary to avoid a “patchwork” of laws that vary from state to state. Maine and Connecticut have also passed laws requiring labeling, but those measures will not go into effect until bordering states also pass legislation.
Roberts bill is not the only legislation aiming to tackle the issue of labeling genetically engineered ingredients in food. An alternative bill was introduced last week by a group of Democrats who are hoping to protect state labeling laws and simultaneously avoid a patchwork of conflicting laws. The bill is supported by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The Democrats’ bill would give food manufacturers four ways to label GMOs on the current nutritional panels.
“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 common-sense pathway forward,” Merkley said in a statement.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a supporter of Roberts’ bill, said the Democrats’ bill “would end up stigmatizing a technology the farmers [Merkley] represents rely on… It can’t pass, period.” The CFSAF also said, “Mandatory on-package labeling is reserved for important health and safety information or to distinguish material difference in products. This doesn’t apply to biotech labeling because the overwhelming scientific consensus shows that GMOs are completely safe.”
Still, not all the Senators are impressed or supportive of Roberts’ bill. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stated that if bill comes to a vote on the Senate floor without change she will not vote for it. “I will not support a final bill until it includes more transparency and a national uniform standard that works for consumers,” Klobuchar said in statement last week.
The bill would need 60 votes in the Senate before making its way to President Obama’s desk. It remains unclear whether or not Roberts’ bill will receive as much resistance as the DARK Act did last year. In 2015, the critics of the “DARK Act” were able to force the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition & Forestry to hold a hearing titled “Agriculture Biotechnology: A Look at Federal Regulation and Stakeholder Perspectives.”
The committee heard testimony from several speakers representing farmers, the GMO lobby, and consumer groups. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency also testified. However, the hearing was criticized for being one-sided and favoring corporations who would directly benefit from the passage of the bill.
Derrick is available for interviews.
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