Advocates for labels that would tell consumers if their foods contain genetically modified ingredients won a minor victory this week when a bill that threatens to undermine hard-won state-level transparency rules stalled in the Senate.
The latest bill that threatens to undermine Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law, set to go into effect on July 1, hit a roadblock in the Senate on Wednesday. The version of what pro-labeling groups have dubbed the DARK Act—Denying Americans the Right to Know—put forth by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., fell short of the 60 votes needed for it to advance, with 49 members, both Democrats and Republicans, voting no.
The bill, which passed the House last year, would have established a voluntary labeling standard that would override state-level mandatory labeling regulations as Vermont has passed and other states are considering. Roberts, who chairs the agriculture committee, defended his stance on labeling in a statement issued after the vote.
“My approach to labeling acknowledges what many American consumers forget: our food is abundant, affordable and safe,” he said, in part. “We must continue our reliance on science and technology to ensure our continued prosperity.”
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While there is no science linking consumption of genetically engineered foods with human health risks, the grand majority of Americans—more than 90 percent, according to some polls—support mandatory labeling. Pro-labeling groups, which have fought doggedly against the bill, see the vote as a victory for consumers.
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“The Roberts measure, backed by the food industry, shows the contempt of our nation’s large food companies for their own customers, who overwhelmingly support labeling of genetically engineered food,” Gary Ruskin, codirector of U.S. Right to Know, said in a statement.
Gary Hirshberg of Just Label It looked forward to a legislative compromise that makes labeling mandatory, not voluntary. “I am optimistic that Congress can come together to find a real solution for consumers that is mandatory, national, and gives consumers the information they want about the food they are eating,” he said. “Any solution has to work for both consumers and for industry.”
Another labeling bill pending in the Senate, introduced by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, would do just that. The legislation would also override the Vermont law, supplanting it with a mandatory federal labeling standard. GMO ingredients would be noted on the back label, either in parentheses, marked by an asterisk, with a catchall phrase like “produced with genetic engineering,” or with a symbol developed by the FDA.
The food industry, which counts Roberts as a loyal ally (he was endorsed by leading Kansas ag groups in the 2014 election), deemed the bill a nonstarter.
The vote offered a small victory for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ home state politics and presidential aspirations.
“I am pleased that Congress stood up to the demands of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations and rejected this outrageous bill,” Sanders said in a statement. “Today’s vote was a victory for the American people over corporate interests.”