Senate passes GMO labeling compromise bill

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Debbie Stabenow discusses the different labeling options under S. 764 while introducing the bill

On Thursday, July 7th, the US Senate passed a bill that would set a national labeling standard for foods containing genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients. Introduced by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) the previous day, S. 764 is a compromise bill that resulted from negotiations between Stabenow and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KY), which had already drawn heated debate between partisans of this issue. At the end of the first day, the Senate voted 65-32 for cloture on the GMO labeling bill, thereby limiting debate and discussion of amendments. On Thursday, the bill passed with 63 votes in favor, and 30 votes against. If a similar bill is passed in the House of Representatives, this standard could become law in the United States.

Since the introduction of genetically engineered crops, the question of labeling them in stores has been a contentious political issue, but one that did not often rise to national consciousness. Several waves of ballot measures had been attempted by proponents of labeling such as California Proposition 37 – but every one of them rejected by voters. Some of the smaller, northeastern states of Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine passed mandatory labeling laws through their legislatures, as part of a multi-state approach taken by advocates (map). All but one of these states had a conditional clause stating that a certain number of nearby states with large populations must also have GMO labeling laws for theirs to take effect. Vermont is the only state that has a labeling law without such provisions, and it went into effect on July 1 this year. Some companies have already added labels to their packages. (Read our story about some of the initial effects of this law on food availability in Vermont here.)

Some lawmakers, looking to avoid some of the costly and problematic effects of a single state mandating special labels on foods sold within the state or a potential state-by-state patchwork sought to propose laws that would pre-empt state labeling mandates and replace them with a single federal standard. One such bill, proposed by Senator Roberts, would have put the USDA in charge of creating a voluntary labeling standard, (which is discussed in detail here) but failed to pass. Other senators, such as Jeff Merkley (D-OR) proposed a mandatory GMO labeling scheme that was more stringent, which also failed to gain support. Senators Stabenow and Roberts together negotiated a compromise bill that became the one introduced Wednesday, and passed Thursday.

The bill institutes a national mandatory labeling standard for foods that contain genetically engineered crops, with several options for how food manufacturers can label their products. They can use plain language on the package, a website url, phone number, or QR code that leads to disclosure about GMO content, or a symbol that would be created by the USDA after a 2-year process. The bill also grants authority to the USDA to determine the accessibility of the QR code based approach as well as some of the bills exemptions. “Very small” companies do not have to disclose this information, and ingredients that do not contain genetic material from the crops they were derived from are also exempt. Even with these exemptions, compared to the Vermont law it replaces this results in thousands of additional products that would be covered.

Bernie Sanders opposed S. 764 and advocated for making the Vermont law the national standard

Upon introduction into the Senate, Senator Stabenow emphasized that there was no scientific controversy over the safety of growing and eating genetically modified foods. The Vermont label law H.112 actually contains language stating that “There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods” as justification for enacting the law. While Stabenow was still giving her presentation introducing the new bill, A small group of senators including Bernie Sanders (I-VT) held a concurrent press conference voicing their opposition to the bill and re-emphasizing issues such as safety and their concerns about corporate power. The debate continued through the following day, and viewers reported that Senator Sanders chastised the Senate for not inviting “all voices” to testify in the Senate about GMO safety, and that Senator Stabenow dismissed popular conspiracy theories about GMOs, citing the recent National Academy of Sciences report on the subject.

In the final vote tally, among the 63 yea votes were 41 Republicans and 22 Democrats, indicating strong bipartisan support. Since this bill differs too much from HR 1599, the Safe And Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 which spelled out a voluntary GMO labeling program, there will need to be a new bill passed in the House of Representatives before this bill can be brought before the President to become law. In the meantime, the contentious debate about whether and what kind of labeling there may be for genetically engineered foods in the United States is sure to continue.

The final vote tally for S. 764


C-SPAN2 Day 1 Part 1: Introduction of S. 764 to Senate

C-SPAN2 Day 1 Part 2: Advancement of S. 764

Youtube Live: Press conference of senators opposed to S. 764

C-SPAN2 Day 2: Debate and final voting on S. 764

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.