The bill - proposed by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan) - would require USDA to establish a national voluntary standard for defining and labeling bioengineered foods within two years, and directs the agriculture secretary to engage in a ‘science-based’ consumer education initiative about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.
Critically, it would trump all state-led GMO labeling laws, including the one about to come into effect in Vermont on July 1, 2016, said Roberts: “This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain.
“Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws. It sets national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered.”
Sen. Pat Roberts: "It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue."
The FDA recently denied a petition that would have required the mandatory labeling of biotech foods, he said.
“It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue.”
He also argued that the cost to consumers of “requiring changes in the production or labeling of most of the nation’s food supply for a single state [eg. Vermont]” could “total as much as $82 billion annually—approximately $1,050 per hardworking, American family” – figures strongly disputed by supporters of mandatory GMO labeling.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow: "A voluntary program is not enough to meet consumer demand. That is why I cannot support it"
However, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate ag committee, said she couldn’t support the bill, adding: “We agree that science has shown us that biotechnology is safe. We agree that biotechnology is an important tool... And we agree that a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws is not a workable, long-term solution.
"But I also recognize that a growing number of American consumers want to know more about the food they eat… A voluntary program is not enough to meet consumer demand. That is why I cannot support it.”
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) - who introduced a federal bill to the Senate last year calling for mandatory GMO labeling - used stronger language, adding: "This is a sham bill that will deny American families the right to know what they're feeding their kids."
EWG: Bill would "rob Americans of their right to know what’s in their food"
Supporters of mandatory GMO labeling such as the Just Label It campaign applauded Stabenow for voting against the bill, which the Environmental Working Group argued would “rob Americans of their right to know what’s in their food”.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in turn, welcomed the committee vote, with GMA president Pam Bailey stressing that it was now “critically important that the full Senate pass this legislation as quickly as possible and for the bill to be voted on by the House”.
To pass a bill on the Senate floor, Roberts will need 60 votes, so at least six Democrats would need to vote in favor, if all 54 Republicans were to support the legislation.
Click HERE to read Sen Roberts' proposed bill, which is similar to Mike Pompeo's HR1599 Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (which passed the House in June), but lacks the detail (eg. HR1599 would allow firms to make 'natural' claims on foods made with ingredients from GE crops, and would still allow a food to be labeled non-GMO if it is produced with GE processing aids or enzymes, or is derived from animals fed GE feed).
Read two opposing perspectives on the proposed bill below:
"It may seem counter-intuitive for state officials to support a bill that preempts state law, but when it comes to America’s complex food system, state by state patchworks of biotechnology food labeling laws are chaotic for commerce, difficult to enforce and will deliver many unintended consequences.
"Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques. What a mandatory label won’t tell consumers is that foods and food crops produced using biotechnology are among the most reviewed, studied, scrutinized and regulated products in the world.
"Biotech crops have been widely grown and safely consumed over the last two decades and more. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up, and more land and resources will be needed to produce the same amount of food.
"Roberts’s bill is a common sense solution to an important national issue. I urge all members of the United States Senate to support it."
Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food
"Not only would Sen. Roberts’ version of the DARK Act block states from labeling GMOs, it would also make it more difficult for companies like Campbell’s to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMOs. Just Label It calls on the Senate to reject the DARK Act and instead urges Senators to support proposals that give consumers the right to know what’s in their food – a right already held by consumers in 64 nations. I applaud Senator Debbie Stabenow and other Democrats for standing with consumers and voting against the DARK Act.
"We remain hopeful that the Senate will craft a solution that works for both consumers and the food industry. Consumers want the right to know what’s in their food."
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm