Senators Trying To Strike Down Vermont GMO Labeling Law At Last Minute

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Two years ago, Vermont became the first state to pass a law requiring clear disclosures of foods containing genetically modified/engineered ingredients. A number of packaged food giants — including PepsiCo, Mars Inc., General Mills, and Campbell Soup Co. — have already made the decision to label their products on a nationwide basis in advance of the July 1 start of the new rules. With that deadline approaching, a pair of agribusiness-backed senators have introduced legislation that would kill the Vermont law, prevent other states from enacting similar regulations, and give companies two years to create a label with little to no information.

Last week, the two most powerful members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry — Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (KS) and Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) — hammered out a “compromise” piece of legislation [PDF] intended to scuttle the Vermont labeling law.

That’s not our interpretation of the bill’s goal; Sen. Roberts explicitly stated this intention following the release of the proposal.

“Unless we act now, Vermont law denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace is the law of the land,” said Roberts (who has received nearly $976,000 from agribusiness PACs and donors this cycle) in a statement.

We’ve asked both Sen. Roberts’ office and staff for the Agriculture Committee to explain exactly how Vermont’s law denigrates biotechnology or could cause confusion, but neither have responded.

In addition to negating the Vermont law, the proposal preempts any state or local labeling laws, meaning no state government or municipality could enact rules that are in any way different from this legislation.

Unlike this year’s previous failed Senate bill, which sought to gut state laws and replace them with a purely voluntary labeling standard, this legislation would indeed direct the Secretary of Agriculture to create a national standard for the labeling of bioengineered food. However, the labels would likely look nothing like the small bits of text required by the Vermont law.

Instead, the proposal would allow food producers to decide for themselves if they want to just give the address for a website on their packaging. That link need not even be text; it could be a scannable barcode that could simply read “Scan here for more food information,” or a phone number stating, “Call for more food information.”

Additionally, the proposed legislation gives the Secretary of Agriculture two full years to come up with these rules, during which time his department must “conduct a study to identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods.”

Smaller food companies would have an additional full year beyond the two given over to the creation of the new standards.

Sen. Stabenow (who has received $1.23 million from agribusiness PACs and donors this election cycle) claims that the bipartisan proposal will close the so-called “pepperoni pizza” loophole in the Vermont law.

Under the current Vermont rules [PDF], any packaged food product containing meat or poultry would be exempt from the labeling rules, as those products are under the regulatory umbrella of the USDA. Thus, a frozen cheese pizza could be labeled under the Vermont law, but a frozen pepperoni pizza could not, regardless of GMO content.

But would the federal bill actually close this loophole? It would seem to depend on the amount of meat involved. The proposed bill says that the labeling requirements only apply if the “most predominant ingredient” is regulated by the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act.

If meat, poultry, or eggs are the primary ingredient then the product is still exempt. Thus, a meat-lover’s pizza may have so much meat it doesn’t qualify for the proposed federal label.

The proposal also introduces a “chicken soup” loophole, exempting products with “broth, stock, water, or similar solution” as the predominant ingredient from the labeling if the next most predominant ingredient is meat or poultry.

For anyone who wants to tell their senator how they feel about this legislation, our colleagues at Consumers Union have created a way for you to reach out to your lawmaker directly to share your opinion.

“This deal is unacceptable to the nine out of ten Americans who support mandatory GMO labeling. Consumers deserve to know what’s in their food and to be able to make informed decisions,” explains Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for CU. “They have been clear that they want straightforward GMO labels that they can read and understand at a quick glance when shopping.”

Halloran contends that replacing the Vermont-style labels with barcodes or phone numbers will greatly reduce the likelihood that shoppers will actually find out the information they seek.

“While we appreciate efforts by Senator Stabenow and others to seek a better bill than the one passed by the House last summer, this deal does not meet consumer needs,” she adds. “QR codes, 1-800 numbers, or websites aren’t a solution. The new Senate bill is just another way to allow companies to keep consumers in the dark – especially the one-third of Americans who don’t own a smartphone and those in rural areas without reliable broadband service.”

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