Senate Votes Down Bill That Would Have Overturned States’ GMO Labeling Laws

Image courtesy of .Seuss

Regardless of whether you’re against, for, or ambivalent about genetically modified foods, surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans at least want to know whether the items they buy contain genetically engineered ingredients, and some states have enacted laws intended to require labeling of GMO and GE products. Today, the U.S. Senate voted to strike down a new piece of legislation that would have overturned these local laws in favor of a voluntary labeling program.

The Senate legislation — technically an amendment [PDF] to earlier legislation (more on that in a bit) — was effectively no different from the House’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, or as it was dubbed by critics, the “DARK Act,” standing for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.”

It directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a “national voluntary” standard for labeling bioengineered food. More importantly, it puts the kibosh on existing state laws about GMO labels.

More importantly, the legislation prohibits states and municipalities from establishing — or allowing to continue “any requirement relating to the labeling or disclosure of whether a food is bioengineered” unless that local requirement is “identical” to the one ultimately established by the Secretary of Agriculture.

When the bill came up on the Senate floor today, only 48 senators voted to pass the legislation, one vote short of the nays, and 12 short of the 60 votes needed for the bill to move on. The vote was mostly along party lines, with three Democratic senators breaking rank to vote in favor of the bill and seven Republicans voicing their opposition.

The legislation, introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (KS), was able to skip over much of the usual procedural red tape by having Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell present it as an amendment to an earlier Senate bill to defund Planned Parenthood (a bill that was originally intended to reauthorize the National Sea Grant College program). The amendment wiped out all the existing text of the Planned Parenthood legislation, meaning all that remained was the GMO labeling bill.

Earlier this week, Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) criticized this fast-lane attempt to push the bill through the Senate.

“This legislation has never been heard in committee,” said the senator. “It was crafted over the last few hours. Here we are with a fundamental issue of citizens’ right to know, and the majority leader of this Chamber has decided to bypass any ordinary consideration to jam this through on behalf of
Monsanto.”

In response to today’s vote, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) called the failed legislation “deceitful” and a “brazen attack” on consumers’ rights to know what is in their food.

“This legislation would have undermined strong state GMO-labeling laws, like Connecticut’s, and thwarted efforts to ensure consumers have access to basic, on-package information about their food,” said Blumenthal. “The American people have overwhelmingly called for mandatory GMO labeling, and now it is time for us to take up commonsense legislation to provide a strong mandatory on-package GMO labeling standard.”

Our colleagues at Consumers Union, who had voiced their opposition to both this legislation and the House version, applauded the Senate for voting down the bill.

“Consumers have a right to know what they are eating. ​As the vote makes clear, meaningful, mandatory labeling that provides consumers with the information they want about whether their food is genetically engineered​ is the only answer,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. “And consumers​ want it on the package, not via​ a code that has to be scanned with a​ smartphone, or by searching​ a website, or by ​calling​ a 1-800 number, ​before putting every item in their cart.”