Senators reach bipartisan deal on national GMO labeling law

MONTPELIER — A bipartisan deal has been reached by two key members of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on a national GMO labeling law that would nullify Vermont’s labeling law set to take effect on July 1.

gmo-labeling_1The compromise bill was announced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, and its chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. The legislation would create the first mandatory, nationwide label for food products containing genetically modified organisms that are commonly referred to as GMOs.

“This bipartisan agreement is an important path forward that represents a true compromise. Since time is of the essence, we urge our colleagues to move swiftly to support this bill,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement.

In her own statement, Stabenow called the bipartisan bill “a win for consumers and families.”

“For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients,” she said.

Stabenow said the proposal “is also a win for our nation’s farmers and food producers” because it would prevent a patchwork system of state laws, beginning with the Vermont law next month.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

“Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food. I also wanted a bill that prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state. This bill achieved all of those goals, and most importantly
recognizes that consumers want more information about the foods they buy,” she said.

The urgency is due to Vermont’s GMO labeling law signed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014. Like the national law proposed by Stabenow and Roberts, it requires labels on food products containing GMO ingredients. But opponents of the Vermont law have feared it would lead to different standards in different states and be too costly. They have also argued that GMOs are safe for consumers.

The legislation revealed Thursday would supersede Vermont’s law and prohibit states from setting their own labeling requirements. It would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture two years to finalize the national regulations.

Shumlin said Thursday that Vermont “has been a pioneer in pushing vigorously for the rights of consumers to know what’s in their food.” He said a national law makes sense “in concept,” but he has “deep concerns with the provisions in this legislation.”

“First, this bill will preempt Vermont and delay for several years the right for consumers nationwide to know what’s in their food. Second, while Vermont required GMO information printed right on the label, the legislation being put forward in Congress allows the food manufacturer to choose how to disclose the information, including using an electronic code that has to be scanned by a device to access GMO information. That solution falls short for consumers who lack access to technology or the internet to find out what’s in their food,” the governor said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Shumlin said he is also concerned “about a lack of clarity for enforcing monetary penalties if a company fails to comply with the labeling standard, which would render it toothless.” And the proposed national law Finally, “would potentially allow products with a significant portion of GMO ingredients to skate by without being subject to labeling requirements,” he said.

Shumlin pledged to work with Vermont’s congressional delegation “to see if we can remedy the serious defects in this national legislation.”

“If we cannot, this legislation should not become law and I will oppose it,” he said.

Like the Vermont law, meat and eggs produced from livestock that are fed GMO feed would not need to be labeled. But foods that contain both meat and GMOs would require a label if meat is not the primary ingredient. The proposed national law deviates from Vermont’s for mixed-ingredient products.

Under the proposal, food manufacturers can choose from three options to alert consumers about GMO ingredients. They could create labels that indicate a product contains genetically modified organisms, adopt a label created by the USDA or use a scannable code, such as a QR code. The codes would need to link consumers to a source disclosing GMO ingredients.

The proposed law would provide the USDA one year to determine if the electronic codes are effective at providing consumers information.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who authored the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 that allowed for the labeling of organic products, said the proposed law “would put the country on a path toward a mandatory, national label for GMO foods.” He said he has “always strongly believed that consumers have a right to know what is in the food they buy and serve their families.”

But Leahy said he not yet sold on the proposal from Stabenow and Roberts because it will nullify the Vermont law and allow for electronic codes rather than labels.

“Without Vermont’s leadership, we would not even be having this debate in Congress. Nonetheless, I am concerned that this agreement is poised to preempt Vermont’s Act 120 and could leave many consumers with complicated scanning codes rather than simple on-package labels or symbols,” Leahy said. “I intend to carefully review the proposal and hope all Vermonters will do the same. There are few issues on which I have heard more from Vermonters in recent years than GE labeling, and I hope Vermonters will share their thoughts with me about this new proposal.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator, was clear about his opposition to the bill.

“I am very proud that Vermont has led the country in GMO labeling. This bill would preempt what Vermont and other states have done,” Sanders said. “GMO labeling exists in dozens of countries around the world. It is not controversial. Already major food companies in our country have begun labeling their products. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat. I am going to do everything I can to defeat this legislation.”

Sanders’ office said he will place a hold on the legislation, which will require at least 60 votes in the 100-member body to overcome.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., put the House in recess Thursday until July 5. That means the legislation cannot be passed until at least five days after the Vermont law takes effect. It is not yet certain if the proposal from Stabenow and Roberts will have enough support to clear both chambers of Congress.

Thursday’s proposed legislation follows an effort by Roberts in March to pass a bill that would have nullified Vermont’s law without establishing a national labeling requirement. Leahy led an effort to derail that bill, which would have created voluntary labeling with the scannable codes.

Falko Schilling, the consumer and environmental advocate for Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the group has “a major concern that this would eliminate Vermont’s law while putting in place a much weaker standard across the country.” VPIRG was a strong proponent of Vermont’s law and instrumental in its passage.

“VPIRG opposes this proposal because it’s another industry attempt to keep consumers in the dark about what’s in their food. No one believes that QR codes will give consumers the information they are demanding,” he said. “If a national labeling standard is put in place we need to require a label that humans can read.”

Meanwhile, Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said his organization is pleased that Congress may be moving forward with a national standard. The group opposed Vermont’s law.

“We don’t know the details of it and that will be sorted out in the coming days. However, we’ve always felt that whatever we do for labeling we should do on a national and uniform basis. To the extent this legislation is advanced, and that’s still a question mark, we feel that’s a better approach,” Harrison said.

The Vermont law may be problematic, according to Harrison, because some products “will not be available in Vermont if the Vermont law continues into the foreseeable future.” Some food makers have decided not to comply, he said.

Harrison said Vermont deserves credit for forcing the discussion in Congress.

“I think Vermont can take great pride in advancing this debate on labeling or disclosure. Congress, I don’t think, would be talking about or dealing with this without Vermont’s pending law on July 1,” he said. “It’s not often that Washington comes to agreement on anything these days. It’s not sure they’ll reach agreement on this, but if they do, I think Vermont is in the middle of the discussion.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Disclosure: Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal Goswami is the partner of Vermont Retail and Grocers Association President-elect Erin Sigrist.

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