This is an excerpt reprinted with permission from The Hagstrom Report, a news service providing original national and international agricultural news to its subscribers.
The Senate late today passed the genetically modified foods labeling bill written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
The vote was 63 to 30.
The vote on final passage took place after a vote on a motion by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to open up the process to allow amendments that Democrats and Republicans had offered to strengthen the labeling requirements. That motion failed by a vote of 30 to 63.
The Roberts-Stabenow bill preempts state GMO labeling laws, including the one in Vermont that went into effect on July 1 and establishes a federal system of mandatory disclosure of genetically modified ingredients to be administered by the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Supporters of the bill portray it as a compromise that requires GMO labeling and protects organic labeling, but opponents said its provisions allowing companies to choose between a word label, a symbol and a scannable link to a website is too weak.
Opponents also said that the bill would not require the labeling of foods that come from genetically engineered seed but do not contain genetically modified material, although the Agriculture Department’s general counsel has said the department does have the authority to require labeling of those foods.
The next step is up to the House, which has passed a voluntary labeling bill. The House could demand to go to conference on the two bills, but is under pressure from the food industry to take up the Senate version so that the bill could be sent to President Barack Obama before Congress goes into recess on July 15 until September.
In a floor speech before the vote, Stabenow said that, even though the Vermont senators led the opposition to the bill, “the people of Vermont should feel very good about what they have done. They will get us to a national labeling standard.”
Holding up a map, Stabenow pointed out that if the federal law did not pass, only consumers in New England “would know” there are genetically modified ingredients in their food.
Stabenow also noted that she had been able to include all four items that the Organic Trade Association had raised and that she made sure federal and state consumer protection laws apply to the bill for enforcement purposes.
Reacting to the Food and Drug Administration’s criticism of the bill, Stabenow noted that the labeling is not a health and food safety issue “but an information issue,” and therefore not in the FDA’s jurisdiction.
“I believe in supporting all parts of agriculture, not just one group against each other,” Stabenow said. The farm bill, she noted, included big increases in organic resarch and money for food hubs.
Although the bill gives companies the option of an on-package word label, a symbol or a scannable code telling consumers that they can get more information, Stabenow said the presence of a scannable code “will give you a pretty good hint there are GMOs” in the product.
“Companies, consumers and grocery stores will drive this,” Stabenow said, referring to the expected consumer campaigns to urge food providers to opt for on-package labels.
The Hagstrom Report covers Congressional hearings, markups and press conferences in Washington D.C., as well as national nutrition news and farm meetings throughout the United States. Subscribers to The Hagstrom Report receive a digital newsletter daily while Congress is in session and at other times as events require and news happens.