Senate panel OKs GMO labeling bill with Democrat backing

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, March 1, 2016 - The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill to preempt state GMO labeling laws, and there were signs there may eventually be enough Democratic support to get a version of the legislation enacted. 

Three Democrats on the committee voted to support the bill, and three others, led by ranking member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, expressed optimism that they could support a compromise measure on the floor. 

At least six Democratic votes would be needed to overcome a filibuster of the bill, if all 54 Republicans supported the legislation. 

“I feel pretty strongly that we're running out of time to at least getting a bill moving to the floor that we can improve,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the three committee Democrats who supported the bill. The others were Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. 

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Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., called the panel's 14-6 approval of the bill an “important first step” and said he would continue negotiating with Stabenow on a compromise version. 

The key sticking point remains whether companies would be required to disclose the presence of biotech ingredients. Stabenow, who pledged to continue negotiating with Roberts, said there needed to be a “path” to nationwide, mandatory disclosure. “We have to show consumers there will be mandatory disclosure,” she said. 

Donnelly has drafted an amendment that would eventually require mandatory disclosure unless at least 85 percent of food products are covered by a voluntary program. Committee members indicated his proposal would be the focus of further discussions. 

Roberts didn't close the door on a compromise on the issue, although he noted to reporters that the food industry opposes mandatory disclosure. “We'll work it out,” he said. 

In addition to Stabenow, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Michael Bennet of Colorado also voted against the bill but indicated they were eager to see a compromise bill enacted. 

Other Democrats seen as potential supporters of the bill when it reaches the floor include Al Franken of Minnesota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The industry was buoyed by the improving prospects for a preemption measure. "We see no major road bumps that will slow the momentum at our backs,” said Claire Parker, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. 

“The House and Senate Agriculture Committees, as well as the full House of Representatives, have now supported a uniform, national labeling standard in bipartisan fashion.  We have every reason to believe the full Senate will soon do so as well and a bill will be on the President's desk within weeks.”

Casey said he voted against the bill in committee "because I know we can come to a better compromise... It's within our reach." Bennet said he “stands ready to help” find a compromise. “We cannot allow for discrimination" against agricultural biotechnology, he said. 

Despite voting for the bill, Heitkamp warned her colleagues that Congress' preempting GMO laws was a “tough sell” in a political climate where the public already doesn't trust the federal government. “We need to be sensitive to those realities as we move forward.” 

The seven-page bill would block a first-in-the-nation labeling requirement set to take effect in Vermont in July, allowing the food industry to move forward with a voluntary, smartphone-based system called SmartLabel for disclosing biotech ingredients as well as allergens and other product characteristics.

While USDA would be required to set disclosure standards for “bioengineered” ingredients, the bill would define bioengineering relatively narrowly as involving recombinant DNA techniques that make modifications that “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

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In addition, USDA and the Health and Human Services Department would be required to survey consumer knowledge about agricultural biotechnology to determine whether consumers have access to information. 

Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said the bill “would rob Americans of their right to know what's in their food. Nine out of 10 Americans want the same rights as consumers in Russia, China and more than 60 other nations that require mandatory GMO labeling.

"We remain hopeful that the Senate will craft a national, mandatory GMO labeling system that provides consumers with basic factual information about their food." 

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