WASHINGTON, July 7, 2016 - The Senate easily approved an historic compromise on GMO disclosure standards late Thursday, setting up final action in the House to shut down Vermont’s week-old labeling mandate.
Industry groups are lobbying House leaders to allow a vote on the bill next week before lawmakers break for the national party conventions and their August recess. A House vote is needed before the vote can go to President Obama for his signature.
House GOP leaders face the challenge of getting the legislation approved without losing too much support from conservatives who will object to mandatory GMO disclosure or who may insist on amendments being allowed. Any changes to the bill would send the bill back to the Senate, dooming any chance of getting it enacted before the fall, if then.
Shortly before the Senate's 63-30 vote to pass the bill, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway said the House GOP leadership "was in the throes of trying to figure out, can they do it under a closed rule" that would not permit amendments.
The final Senate vote was a foregone conclusion after the Senate had voted 65-32 on Wednesday to limit debate on the legislation. Opponents led by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., could do little but delay the vote until the entire 30 hours of allowable debate time had expired.
Merkley refused to allow a vote earlier Thursday evening unless they got votes on a series of amendments that could have been poison pills if they had been adopted. Republicans offered to allow a vote on a mandatory labeling amendment proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., but Merkley turned down the offer.
The legislation, which was the result of months of negotiations between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would allow companies to disclose biotech ingredients through digital smartphone codes as an option to on-package text, which the Vermont law requires.
Meat and dairy products from animals that are fed biotech feed would be exempt from disclosure as well as foods such as pizza that are mostly meat.
“This is not a health and safety issue. It’s an information issue, and it needs to be addressed,” Stabenow said as she closed out debate on the bill.
Roberts called the Senate’s action the “most important vote for agriculture in the last 20 years,” an apparent reference to the 1996 Freedom to Farm law that dismantled Depression-era production controls.
“Our legislation allows farmers to continue using sound science to produce more food with less resources, gives flexibility to food manufacturers in disclosing information, and gives access to more food information that consumers demand.”
The Senate measure is markedly different than a bill that passed the House last year that would simply preempt state labeling laws without mandating any kind of disclosure method. Stabenow said that there had to be some kind of mandatory disclosure to get a sufficient number of Democrats to support a compromise.
Twenty-one Democrats voted for the bill on final passage, while seven Republicans voted against it. The margin could have been bigger: Seven senators missed the vote, all of them Republicans except for Chris Coons of Delaware, a supporter of the bill, and Barbara Boxer of California, an outspoken proponent of mandatory on-package labeling.
The Democrats who voted for the bill in addition to Stabenow were: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Dianne Feinstein of California, Al Franken of Minnesota, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Robert Melendez of New Jersey, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bill Nelson of Florida, Gary Peters of Michigan, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Warner of Virgnia.
The five Republicans who opposed it were: Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
The president of the American Soybean Association, Richard Wilkins, called on the House to quickly approve the Senate legislation, even though it went farther than the House version.
He said that “while the Senate bill isn’t perfect, it’s the best legislation that can become law. A perfect bill that can’t pass won’t accomplish anything for the nation’s farmers or the nation’s consumers," Wilkins said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined food and agriculture groups in applauding the bill. “We urge the House take up this bill next week and send it to President Obama for his signature before they head home for the summer district work period.”
For defenders of the bill, the labeling debate exposed a divide over the future of biotechnology in agriculture.
“I urge all of my colleagues to stop denying science and start understanding that GMO ingredients are just as healthy for American consumers as any other ingredient,” Heitkamp said.
“If we really are concerned about science, let’s start talking about science, and let’s start realizing that in no place has there ever been a study that said these ingredients, GMO inputs, are bad for consumers or in any way injure our livelihood or our health.”
Proponents of on-package labeling charged that the allowance for digital disclosure was designed to hide biotech ingredients from concerned consumers.
“Vermont’s law was a triumph for consumers, for ordinary Americans, over the powerful interests of companies like Monsanto and other multinational food industry corporations,” said Sanders.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., praised Campbell Soup Co. for its decision to voluntarily label its products. Campbell “has decided they’re going to face this issue squarely, honestly and waste no time.”
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, called the bill “deeply flawed,” saying it “falls far short of what the vast majority of consumers want and deserve."
Consumers Union, citing a critique of the bill by the Food and Drug Administration, argues that the legislation contained loopholes that would exempt oils and other highly refined ingredients from disclosure. The Agriculture Department's general counsel says the agency would have authority to include those in the regulations the bill would require it to write.
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