Senate Approves Bill To Outlaw Vermont GMO Labels, Replace Them With Barcodes

Even though some of the nation’s largest food producers — including General Mills, PepsiCo, Campbell Soup, Mars Inc., Bimbo, and Nestle — have already updated their packaging to comply with Vermont’s new labeling requirement for foods containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients, these tiny lines of text may be short lived. Last night, the U.S. Senate voted to approve legislation that will not only outlaw Vermont’s labeling requirement, but eventually (maybe) replace these text labels with something as obscure as a barcode.

The bill, which had already skated through an important procedural vote earlier in the week, was approved yesterday by a vote of 63-30. It now goes to the House of Representatives, which has already agreed to similar legislation. The House could take up this bill as early as next week.

The Senate legislation — written by Sen. Pat Roberts (KS) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI), who have received a total of more than $2.1 million from agribusiness donors in the current election cycle — purports to create a national standard for GMO labeling. However, in order to do so, it explicitly prohibits states and other local governments from enacting their own labeling rules.

The law then gives federal regulators at least two years to create this national standard. Given that amount of time, one might expect that the resulting national GMO label must be some sort of black box alert like you see on prescription opioids or cigarettes. Not even close.

Rather than the “Produced with Genetic Engineering” language seen in the Vermont labels, this national label need not even reference GMO content. It can merely provide a URL or just a barcode that suggests a customer to a website for more information.

“This is not a label; it’s an obstacle course,” said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley after Wednesday’s procedural vote.

Additionally, critics of this bill argue that the definitions used in the text of the legislation provide huge loopholes for popular ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, and other oils or sugars from genetically engineered plants.

“This bill undermines clear labeling, and it blocks state laws in Vermont, Alaska, Maine and Connecticut that are already on the books,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for our colleagues at Consumers Union. “There are serious questions about potential loopholes in the bill that the Food and Drug Administration says could leave most GMO products exempt from any labeling requirements at all. Nine out of ten consumers support mandatory, on-package labels for GMOs. People have a right to know what they’re eating, and this bill fails to serve consumers’ interests.”

Though the legislation was written by the two highest-ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the bill never went through the traditional committee process of holding hearings and debating amendments.

Instead, the bill skipped committee and was brought to the Senate floor by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), who used the husk of a previously approved piece of legislation — basically like crossing out everything on a piece of paper, then writing in the new text on the back — to fast-track the vote on the GMO labeling bill.

This particular bill husk has been gutted and re-stuffed so many times, that when you look at the official voting record on the Senate website, it is simultaneously described as the “Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015” and “A bill to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act,” neither of which has anything to do with the text approved yesterday.

In fact, McConnell had previously used this hollow shell of a bill to introduce an earlier version of the GMO labeling law — the so-called DARK Act — which would have allowed the food industry to create its own voluntary labeling standard. That bill came up short in early 2016, but this second attempt may have legs.

“This was a failure of both policy and of process,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT), who unsuccessfully sought to have the Senate vote on an amendment to the bill that would preserve state labeling laws. “My question to the proponents of this bill is: what do we have to fear by providing the kind of information that consumers need and want, and that 15,000 Connecticut citizens have written to me asking to defend?”