WASHINGTON, June 29, 2016 - Supporters of the Senate’s compromise on biotech labeling are confident it will have the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate but that action may not come until next week. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders confirmed to Agri-Pulse that he has put a hold on the bill, which complicates the procedural process of bringing up the measure during a week when senators already are looking to rush out of town for the long July 4 weekend.

Lawmakers have little time left to get the bill to President Obama before both chambers break July 15 for the national party conventions and then the annual August recess. The House still needs to approve the Senate bill before it can go to the White House.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said Tuesday he hopes to have more Republicans on board than the 46 who supported an earlier version of the bill, and he says ranking member Debbie Stabenow may have as many as 25 Democrats behind the legislation. “I think we’re there, but you’ve got to be sure,” Roberts said of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill. An aide to Stabenow said she “is confident the agreement has the votes to pass the Senate.”

The biotech legislation would preempt Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law, which takes effect this Friday, but there would be little practical impact on the industry if the legislation isn’t enacted until later in the month. On Friday, all new products sent to stores and distribution warehouses in Vermont must be labeled in compliance with the law, but the Vermont attorney general has said companies will be allowed 30 days to correct violations, and consumers won't be allowed to file mislabeling complaints until July 2017.

As with a filibuster, a Senate hold can be overcome with 60 votes, but the inability to get unanimous consent on procedural matters can slow a bill down. Assistant Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said Sanders’ hold could delay the bill for several days. (Durbin wasn’t ready to endorse the bill himself, but he said “it has moved in the right direction.”)

Sanders said, “The people of the United States have a right to know what’s in the food that they are eating. … We’re going to fight to make sure this piece of legislation is defeated.”

In an extraordinary show of support, some 1,065 companies, farm cooperatives and national and state organizations across the food and agribusiness sectors signed a letter endorsing the bill. “Congress must ensure we avoid senseless mandates that will thwart agricultural advancement and hurt consumers — especially those low-income Americans who can least afford to pay more to feed their families,” the letter says.

The signatories include industry giants such as Coca-Cola, Monsanto and Wal-Mart but also small businesses such as Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market in the Detroit area.

The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, has raised concerns about the bill in comments to the Senate obtained by Agri-Pulse. FDA, for example, says that vegetable oils, starches and purified protein would be exempt from the mandatory disclosure standard. The bill’s definition of bioengineered ingredients would require that they contain the “genetic material” of a biotech crop. The genetic material is eliminated in the processing of those ingredients. 

The agency, which would have no direct role in implementing the standards, also said that the bill’s definition of bioengineering is vague.  The legislation “would limit coverage to foods where the genetic modification ‘could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.’ It may be difficult to demonstrate that a particular modification could not be obtained through conventional breeding (or even that it could not occur in nature).”

A spokeswoman for the Senate Agriculture Committee referred questions about the FDA comments to the Agriculture Department. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service would be in charge of interpreting and implementing the legislation.

The frustration of anti-GMO activists is beginning to show as momentum builds toward Senate passage of the deal.  In a joint press release, Food Democracy Now! and the Organic Consumers Association accused the organic industry of selling out on the labeling issue. The release specifically named Organic Valley, Smucker’s, Stonyfield Farms and Whole Foods Market. The companies have “joined with Monsanto and sold out the ability for parents to know what they are feeding their children,” said Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now!.

The bill includes a provision sought by the organic industry that could help broaden support for the legislation: Products that are certified organic by USDA could be labeled as non-GMO.

The Organic Trade Association praised the bill, saying it “would for the first time require mandatory GMO labeling nationwide.”


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