Voluntary GMO labeling bill falls short in Senate

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, March 18, 2016

The Senate failed to reach agreement today on a voluntary national labeling system for genetically engineered food ingredients, putting new pressure on lawmakers to address the issue before mandatory labeling takes effect in Vermont in July.

The 48-49 procedural vote fell well short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and move to a vote on a voluntary labeling bill sponsored by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

“Voting no today is the only thing that maintains the status quo,” Roberts said, warning that letting states adopt their own mandatory standards could cost consumers billions of dollars in higher prices passed along by food companies.

Senators said today’s result would force lawmakers to step up negotiations toward a compromise that can satisfy two sides that at times seem diametrically opposed: Democrats who want mandatory labels on packages disclosing that genetically modified ingredients are present, and Republicans who prefer voluntary labels that might simply direct consumers to a website with detailed information.

Today’s stumble followed lengthy but fruitless talks between Roberts and the Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who supports a mandatory measure.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” Stabenow said in a morning speech on the Senate floor. “We’ve been working very hard.”

Roberts said he had already crafted a compromise, making changes to his committee-passed bill in order to trigger a mandatory system if participation falls short of 70 percent after three years.

Congressional action now would prevent “a wrecking ball from hitting our entire food chain” if Vermont’s law takes effect, he said.

The potential common ground for agreement wasn’t clear, although lawmakers on both sides of the issue said they agree a state-by-state approach is unworkable.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told reporters he hoped an alternative he has introduced would enter the mix. Merkley’s proposal would require disclosures while giving food companies choices for what type of label to put on packages, such as a symbol designed by the Food and Drug Administration.

Asked whether he would present his own measure as part of renewed negotiations, Merkley said, “I’m absolutely interested. Vermont is not going away.”

At a news conference ahead of the vote, Merkley said the Republican leadership squelched any opportunity to amend the bill and scheduled the debate to coincide with presidential primaries that would distract reporters.