WASHINGTON, March 2, 2016 - The prospects for legislation to block Vermont’s GMO labeling law have brightened considerably with the Senate Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan 14-6 vote to approve a bill.
There’s a long way to go yet. To overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor, the bill will need support from at least six Democrats, probably more unless all 54 Republicans vote for it. But three Democrats voted for the bill in committee, and three other panel members, including ranking member Debbie Stabenow, made clear that they want to support a compromise version on the Senate floor.
Still other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, including Al Franken of Minnesota, are following the negotiations and could ultimately back the bill. “I’ll have to see what they come up with,” Franken told Agri-Pulse. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin is seen among other Democrats who could back the bill on the floor.
The ultimate compromise could look a lot like an amendment that committee member Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., drafted but didn’t offer during the committee debate. His amendment would allow the food industry to go forward with plans to voluntarily disclose biotech ingredients through the SmartLabel system and make disclosure mandatory only if less than 85 percent of relevant products are covered by a voluntary system after four years. Companies could choose to put wording directly on labels.
Donnelly said his plan “would ensure that information is directly available for consumers when they want it.”
His amendment would seem to fit Stabenow’s demands for a compromise bill. She said there would have to be a “path” to mandatory disclosure. She stopped short of endorsing Donnelly’s amendment, but said he was offering “important ideas that will help us advance this to where we have an opportunity to come together.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., voted for the bill, but said she wanted to see changes that would ensure consumers can get GMO information. “I am pleased that we are trying to come together on an amendment that focuses on the right to know. I appreciate Sen. Donnelly’s work on this, and I suspect we’re going to make some changes to this bill or it will not pass the floor.”
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, who successfully appealed to committee members to allow the bill to get out of committee without amendments, didn’t rule out a compromise on the mandatory disclosure issue. The Kansas Republican told Agri-Pulse after the committee vote that the Donnelly amendment “represents the kind of alternative” that Democrats are seeking. “We’re going to have to work this out,” he said.
Roberts briefed Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after the committee vote. No timing for floor action has been announced, but Roberts said he was optimistic that the Senate would take up the legislation as a standalone bill soon.
Randy Russell, who is leading the food industry’s lobbying effort, said he had only received Donnelly’s amendment Monday night and wasn’t ready to discuss it. But Donnelly’s 85-percent goal for a voluntary labeling program would appear to be within the industry’s reach.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, about 30 companies are expected to put information about GMO ingredients in the Smart Label system representing about 20,000 products over the next couple of years. Those would represent about two-thirds of the items that could contain biotech ingredients in the average supermarket, GMA says. Many other manufacturers are waiting enactment of a national standard for disclosing biotech ingredients, according to GMA.
Consumers can get access to information products in the SmartLabel either through smartphones, which read the QR code on package labels, or on a website.
Donnelly’s amendment won’t meet the demands of the pro-labeling activists who insist that companies be required to put a symbol or wording on food labels that contain biotech ingredients.
“We’ve always known that the real battleground will be on the floor of the Senate,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group. “I’m confident there are not 60 votes for a voluntary disclosure system that fails to give consumers what they want. Consumers just want to be trusted to make their own choices. They are highly skeptical of high-tech gimmicks like QR codes.”
There is almost certain to be fierce opposition to the legislation on the floor. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who is not on the committee, called the measure “a sham bill that will deny American families the right to know what they're feeding their kids.”
Donnelly voted for the bill in committee along with Klobuchar and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., voted against the bill along with Stabenow, but they gave forceful statements in support of biotechnology and said they were optimistic about supporting a compromise version of the legislation on the floor. “I know we can find a compromise that strikes a balance,” said Bennet.
Industry groups were encouraged by the developments in committee. “We find the forward momentum building behind this bill encouraging, and we urge the Senate to quickly pass this bill for the good of America’s farmers and consumers,” said Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association. Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, said “support from Senate Democrats will be key when the bill reaches the Senate floor in the coming weeks.”
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