Senate Bill To Strike Down Vermont GMO Labels, Replace Them With Barcodes, Clears Hurdle

The Vermont law requiring labels on many foods with genetically modified (GMO) or genetically engineered (GE) ingredients went into effect last week, but the move by the federal government to overturn that law and eventually replace the tiny text labels with barcodes has cleared a significant hurdle in the U.S. Senate.

Shortly before the Vermont law was set to kick in, Sen. Pat Roberts (KS) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) proposed legislation that seeks to outlaw the Vermont labels, prohibit and state or local governments from crafting their own rules, and set out guidelines for federal regulators to — at some point a few years down the road — create a nationwide GMO labeling system that would allow manufacturers to just give phone numbers, or print a barcode that links to a website address with more information.

The bill was fast-tracked, skipping over the usual process of being considered, heard, and marked up in a relevant committee.

Instead, as he did with a previously failed piece of GMO labeling legislation, Majority Leader Sen. McConnell — on behalf of agribusiness-backed Roberts and Stabenow — used the husk of another piece of bill (to defund Planned Parenthood; itself introduced as a substitute for a bill that was originally intended to reauthorize the National Sea Grant College program) to bring the GMO bill to the entire Senate floor right away.

Before voting on whether or not to advance the bill (it will go before the full Senate for a final vote later this week), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, scolded McConnell, claiming that the Majority Leader was breaking his previous promise to ensure that every piece of legislation went through the proper channels.

“On GMOs that’s not the case,” said Reid, who decried the lack of an amendment process. “Senator McConnell should respect his colleagues, Democrat and Republican.”

Supporters of the bill needed 60 votes, and Reid exhorted his party to vote against cloture if only so that the legislation could be considered and amended as the process is intended. However, a number of high-profile Democrats — including Sen. Al Franken (MN) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (CA) — crossed the aisle to vote in favor of advancing the bill, resulting in more than enough votes (65-32) to move the legislation forward.

In debate following the vote, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon argued that agribusiness companies are pushing this legislation, counter to the desires of American voters.

“Nine out of ten americans, regardless of party, want a simple label on the package indicating ‘Does this product contain genetically modified ingredients?'” said Merkley, referencing a recent study by our colleagues at Consumer Reports.

“This law doesn’t actually require a label,” said Merkley, noting that the default “label” is actually a barcode with no indication of what information is obtainable from scanning the barcode. “Package after package in America already have barcodes. It doesn’t say that there are GMO ingredients in this package. It doesn’t say scan here for more on the GMO ingredients in this package. Just scan me… all it does it take you to a website… This is not a label; it’s an obstacle course.”

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, which has asked Americans to let their Senators know how they feel about GMO labeling, says today’s vote was a letdown for supporters of transparency in food products.

“We’re disappointed that the Senate has pushed this bill forward when important questions remain about potential loopholes that would sharply limit its effectiveness,” says Halloran. “The FDA raised issues about language that could exempt most GMO products on the market. Moreover, this bill – which blocks state GMO labeling laws immediately — doesn’t require the USDA to establish the new national standard for two years, leaving a legal vacuum that would undermine GMO labeling already occurring in the marketplace. We urge Senators to listen to the nine out of ten consumers who support mandatory, on-package GMO labeling and oppose this bill.”

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