WASHINGTON, March 16, 2016 - A bill that would preempt state GMO labeling laws was blocked in the Senate as key Democrats demanded more concessions from the food industry on proposed new disclosure requirements for biotech ingredients.
“This is a pretty simple vote. You're either for agriculture or you're not,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said before the cloture vote today.
The appeal fell flat. Roberts didn't reach an agreement before the vote with his committee's top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, on the disclosure provisions, and he was unable to get the 60 votes necessary to advance the bill. The cloture motion failed, 48-49.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell switched his vote to "no" on the cloture motion, which will allow him to bring up the legislation at any time should Roberts strike a deal.
Six other Republicans voted against the motion, while just three Democrats supported it. Industry officials, however, were braced for a big loss on the cloture motion if it took place before Roberts and Stabenow had reached a deal.
“I am optimistic that there is a compromise here that should work for all interested parties,” said Chuck Conner, a former Senate aide and deputy agriculture secretary who is now president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “This is not an insurmountable battle.”
Stabenow said before the vote that the negotiations would continue and that she hoped a deal could be wrapped up “yet this week,” but it was also possible that any resolution would have to wait until after the two-week Easter recess.
“Consumers want information about the food they eat. It's as simple as that. In fact, the bill continues the status quo on providing information to consumers,” Stabenow said.
Shortly after the vote, Roberts issued a statement saying he has “been flexible and (has) compromised” on the issue, and “if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same.”
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, said those voting in opposition need to compromise for the good of American producers.
"Make no mistake, it's not Republicans these Senators have opposed, it's the American farmer and rancher,” Conaway said. “Enough is enough. Americans are tired of viewing a broken system that refuses compromise at the behest of extreme views be it on the left or the right.”
The first state GMO labeling law is set to take effect in Vermont this July.
Roberts is proposing an amendment to the bill that would allow food makers to disclose GMOs in a variety of ways, including through call centers and websites as well as scanning technology. Companies wouldn't be required to do anything unless a voluntary disclosure system fails to cover at least 70 percent of the food supply within three years.
On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., proposed an amendment to the Roberts plan that would trigger the disclosure mandate if 80 percent of food products aren't covered by a voluntary system. Importantly, the amendment also includes a requirement that labels bear a telephone number through which consumers can get "direct access" to information about whether a product is genetically engineered. Donnelly voted for the cloture motion along with Tom Carper, D-Del., who cosponsored the amendment, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
The Republicans who voted against cloture included the Alaska senators, who want biotech salmon labeled, as well as Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Collins said she wants a national standard for labeling GMO foods but said that it was not enough to rely on a smartphone code. “Just today I met with some specialty food companies form Maine who are not going to sell in Vermont anymore,” she said. “This is quickly going to become a real conundrum, especially for small specialty food companies.”
Lee, one of the Senate's most conservative members, objected to the possibility that food companies would be required to disclose biotech ingredients. The legislation would provide “far too much power and discretion to the secretary of agriculture to create a mandatory labeling standard at a time when the executive branch is already abusing the current power we have delegated to it,” he said.
On the other side of the battle, the leading proponent of mandatory on-package GMO labeling, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, demanded what he called a "one-second test." That would require wording or a special symbol on the labels so that consumers could instantly tell whether a product contains biotech ingredients.
While many in agriculture are frustrated with the vote's result, those opposed to the bill see it as a huge victory. Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said the Senate “did the right thing” by not advancing the bill.
“By blocking state laws from going into effect and replacing them with voluntary measures and impractical alternatives to labeling, it would have ensured that big food processing companies and the biotechnology industry continue to profit by misleading consumers,” Hauter said. She went on to say that “any version of this bill that would result in anything less than mandatory on-package labeling is unacceptable.”
Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, applauded the vote.
“We remain hopeful that Congressional leaders can craft a national mandatory compromise that works for consumers and the food industry,” he said.
But American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall made clear that, like Roberts, his group saw the vote against cloture as a vote against farmers.
“To say we are angry with those senators who abandoned farmers and ranchers and turned their backs on rural America on this vote is an understatement,” Duvall said. “Their votes opposing this measure ignored science, threw our nation's food system into disarray and undermined the public's understanding of the many benefits of biotechnology in feeding a growing and hungry population.”
(Story updated at 4:30 p.m.)