FarmPolicy

November 22, 2017

Tuesday Recap: Senators Debate GMO Labeling

Categories: Biotech

Jennifer Steinhauer and Stephanie Strom reported in today’s New York Times that, “The Senate will grapple this week with perhaps the most contentious issue in the food industry: whether the government should require mandatory labeling on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

“On Wednesday, the Senate is set to vote on a measure that would create voluntary national standards for labeling food with genetically modified ingredients. The bill would prevent states from mandating labels just before Vermont was set to become the first in the nation to impose such requirements.

“But the measure most likely lacks sufficient support from Democrats, most of whom would like to see a mandatory labeling program that offers food manufacturers different options for presenting the information, including a simple symbol. That means the legislation will almost certainly have to be revised.”

The Times article noted that, “This month, for example, the Corn Refiners Association released a study concluding that nationwide labeling — and a consequent shift in ingredients by food companies seeking to avoid the labels’ stigma — would raise the average family’s grocery bill by more than $1,000 a year.

Maine and Connecticut have also adopted labeling standards, but those laws do not go into effect until other states in the region also pass laws.”

Meanwhile, John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer reported yesterday at Politico that, “Four organic-food industry executives held a fundraiser on Friday for Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow — the Senate’s leading Democrat on agriculture issues — just days before the chamber was set to take up a controversial bill with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line for U.S. food companies.”

The article added that, “A Stabenow aide said the fundraiser had been in the works for months and was not timed to coincide with action on the Republican-authored bill. The legislation, however, has been a topic of heated debate in Washington and the agricultural industry for months, and Stabenow played a key role in negotiations on the issue.

On Tuesday, Stabenow sided with organic food companies and came out against the bill, authored by Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Opponents argue the legislation fails consumers by preventing states from requiring labels on food products that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Stabenow’s opposition is a serious blow to the bill’s chances of clearing a Democratic filibuster.

“Stabenow’s office said there was nothing untoward about her participating in the fundraiser even as the Senate was set to begin debate on the GMO bill.”

Several Senators took time to discuss the GMO food labeling issue on the Senate floor Tuesday, links and excerpts below:

Snate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) (full transcript)- “The commonsense, bipartisan legislation offered by Chairman PAT ROBERTS of the Agriculture Committee would set clear, science-based standards in order to prevent families from being unfairly hurt by a patchwork of conflicting State and local labeling laws passed in places where they don’t even live. This bipartisan bill would help meet consumer interest for information about how food is made, while keeping costs from rising at every level of production.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) (full transcript)- “Mr. President, 90 percent of Americans want to know what is in their food. All of Europe, China, Russia, they know what is in their food. We should know what is in our food. Senator STABENOW, the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, has been trying to work to come up with some reasonable approach, but what she has gotten is not much help from the chair of the committee.”

Senators Jon Tester (D., Mont.) and Jeff Merkely (D., Ore.)-  colloquy-(full transcript)- Sen. Tester: “Transparency in everything leaves better accountability and gives more power to average Americans, and that is also true when we talk about food. Free markets work when consumers have access to information. The U.S. Senate should not be in the business of hiding information from consumers.”

Sen. Merkley: “Well, in this Monsanto DARK Act 2.0 that has been put on the floor, there is a third option beyond the voluntary labeling and beyond the 1–800 numbers and QR code, and the third option—door No. 3, if you will—is that the company can put something on social media, which means, I assume, Instagram, Facebook, or who knows what. So if I am a customer and I am in the store and I see these three products and I want to find out if they have GE ingredients and there is no 800 number and there is no QR code because the company has chosen door No. 3, how am I to know that?”

Senate Ag. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) (full transcript)- “I have heard concerns that a voluntary-only standard would not provide consumers with enough information, even though there is no health, safety, or nutritional concern with this biotechnology. So we worked out a compromise to address these concerns by providing an incentive for the marketplace to provide more information.  This legislation will allow the markets to work. However, if they do not live up to their commitments and information is not made available to consumers, then this legislation holds the market accountable. Under this proposal, a mandatory labeling program would go into effect only if a voluntary program does not provide significant information after several years…[T]his is not the first time this body has addressed this issue. In 2012 and 2013, Members of the Senate soundly rejected the idea of mandatory labeling for biotechnology. That is right. Both times more than 70 Members voted to reject mandatory labeling. This body then stood up for sound science and common sense, and I trust my colleagues will continue to stand up and defend sound science again.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) (full transcript)- “As a mom and as a grandma, I want to know what is in my food. Because of work we have done before, you do have to list how much sugar is in the product, which is so critical as we combat diabetes and other things. Sometimes you read that sugar content, and you think: Oh my God, I am going to get something else. And you can see how many carbs, how much fat. Why can’t you find out if the product is genetically modified? Seems to me, this is fair.”

Sen. Jeff Merkely (D., Ore.) (full transcriptincluding around a dozen letters from concerned voters on this issue that were sent to his office)- “Voting no tomorrow morning is the right vote if you believe in States’ rights. It is the right vote if you believe in the consumers’ right to know, the citizens’ right to know. And it is the right vote if you believe we shouldn’t have a process in this Chamber that just jams through something for a powerful special interest at the expense of the 9 or 10 Americans who want this information.  So tomorrow, colleagues, let’s turn down this insult to the intelligence of Americans, this assault on States’ rights, this deprivation, this attack on the freedom of our citizens.”

Sen. Pat Leahy (D., Vt.) (full transcript)- “The bill we are considering today [the bill sponsored by Sen. Roberts] is a hasty reaction—a reaction with no real, open hearing—in response to a 2- year-old law that is set to finally take effect and doesn’t fully take effect until the end of this year. Instead of protecting consumers and trying to find a true compromise, this bill continues the status quo and tells the public: We don’t want you to have simple access to information about the foods you consume.”

Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) (full transcript)- “So [the bill sponsored by Sen. Roberts] makes sure that we don’t have a patchwork of 50 State labeling laws. It sets up a voluntary program within 1 year. Then, if the information isn’t out there sufficient for consumers, it makes sure that USDA follows up and ensures that the information is provided and that it is provided in a variety of ways that work for consumers but also work for our farmers and ranchers and for the food industry so that we don’t raise costs for our consumers.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) (full transcript)- “We are where we are because the Vermont law is not written in a way that merely impacts the citizens of Vermont. It is astonishing to hear the misleading claim that the Vermont law is about the right to know. If the Vermont law is about the right to know, why is it that the law exempts so many products?

“Here are some examples of the absurdity of the Vermont law. Vegetable cheese lasagna would be labeled, but meat lasagna wouldn’t. Soy milk would need to be labeled, but cow’s milk would not. Frozen pizza would need to be labeled, but delivered pizza would not. Chocolate syrup would need to be labeled, but maple syrup would not. Vegetable soup would need to be labeled, but vegetable beef soup would not. Food at a restaurant would be to- tally exempt, but not food at a grocery store. Vegetarian chili would need to be labeled, but meat chili would not. Veggie burgers made with soy would need to be labeled, but cheeseburgers would not.  By my way of thinking, it is a patch work that doesn’t make sense if you are trying to come up with a consistent way to communicate to consumers what is in the food they are eating.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) (full transcript)- “If there is scientific support for the health or environmental benefits, why not let consumers know? Let consumers make knowledgeable and informed choices. Consumers are capable of those kinds of choices, and I am shocked that this deliberative body is considering a measure that is crafted so purposefully and intentionally to, in effect, deceive the American public and actively deny them the accurate information they deserve.  There is no question that this bill is nothing more than a carve-out for big businesses and mega-GMO seed corporations.”

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