By Casey Wooten
June 28 — Legislation on labeling genetically modified foods is getting a mixed reaction in the Senate—including the threat of a hold—as the top Agriculture Committee members shop around their compromise bill.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) released June 23 their measure to create a mandatory, nationwide standard for labeling GMO foods. Food makers would either print a text message on the package disclosing whether a product contains GMO ingredients, or print a symbol or an Internet link directing customers to GMO information (See previous story, 06/24/16).
Stabenow must now convince Democrats who voted down a previous labeling bill in March that this version is the best possible outcome from the months of negotiations.
Stabenow told reporters June 28 that she is confident she and Roberts will get the 60 votes necessary to advance the bill, though a vote may not come until Congress returns from the July 4 recess.
The bill would preempt state labeling laws, though Vermont's mandatory-disclosure law is set to take effect July 1 and Congress likely won't have passed a bill before then. Companies continue to change packaging and reformulate recipes—or prepare to pull products from shelves in an effort to comply with the state law, which is stricter than the Senate proposal. Food makers are wary of a state-by-state labeling regime and instead back a nationwide standard.
A voluntary GMO labeling bill failed to advance in March, 48-49, largely due to opposition from Democrats, who said it didn't provide enough information to consumers (See previous story, 03/17/16).
Though Stabenow said she was confident the new measure will advance, some in her party remain skeptical.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a statement that he would put a hold on the bill.
“The agreement announced by Sens. Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow would create a confusing, misleading and unenforceable national standard for labeling GMOs,” Sanders said. “It would impose no penalties for violating the labeling requirement, making the law essentially meaningless.”
Overcoming a hold could draw the legislative process well into July, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters.
“That's a matter of days to get to that, if there is a true hold on it,” Durbin said.
Durbin voted against the March GMO labeling bill, but issued cautious optimism toward the new measure.
“There are elements of this that I am not happy with, but I think it has moved in the right direction since the early draft,” he said.
But some Democrats are far harsher toward the new bill.
“This does not give a consumer-friendly label,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said on the Senate floor. “Instead, it sends people off through a maze, through a rat hole of telephone calls and websites, not in any way practical to a shopper in a store.”
Merkley pointed to what he called major loopholes in the legislation. The bill defines a bioengineered food as one having traits which “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature,” which Merkley said could allow genetically modified foods to slip through the system. Merkley also lashed out against a provision in the bill that may exempt some crops from the labeling rule.
Some food makers such as General Mills Inc. and Kellogg Co. have said they would label products made with genetically modified ingredients. The Coca-Cola Co. said June 28 that it may temporarily pull some of its products off of Vermont store shelves.
“To avoid multiple labeling changes, some lower-volume brands and packages we offer within our broad portfolio could be temporarily unavailable in Vermont,” Ben Sheidler, a Coca-Cola spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA. “Many of our most popular beverages like Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero will continue to be widely available.”
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