G.M.O. Labeling Bill Clears First Hurdle in Senate

July 7th, 2016


Category: Food Safety, Miscellaneous, Policy

Pretty blonde, finger on lip, choosng product from supermarket shelf(New York Times) – A federal bill that would require labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients passed a major hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday, significantly raising the odds that a national standard for labeling will put an end to a fight that has roiled the food industry for years.

The bill requires food manufacturers to use one of three types of labels to inform consumers when genetically engineered, or G.M.O., ingredients are in their products. The label requirements would also apply to growers of fruits and vegetables that are genetically engineered, like the Arctic Apple and some zucchini.

The approval is a big win for food companies, farm groups and the biotech industry, which began pushing for a national standard last year to head off a Vermont labeling law that went into effect last Friday.

The bill moved forward in a 65-32 procedural vote and is now widely expected to get final approval in the Senate as early as this week. It was approved after moments of unusual theater, including visitors in the gallery throwing cash on the Senate floor to protest contributions made by Monsanto to senators backing the bill.

“From my perspective, it’s not the best possible bill, but it’s the best bill possible under the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today,” said Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas who helped write the legislation. Mr. Roberts had tried and failed to pass a voluntary labeling bill earlier this year.

Proponents of labeling, and of Vermont’s law, were quick to express their disappointment. The bill imposes no penalties or fines for noncompliance, and it may leave many genetically engineered ingredients exempt from labeling requirements.

“If this bill becomes law, the industry wins what are essentially voluntary requirements under this G.M.O. labeling ‘compromise,’” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

Both Republicans and Democrats expect the bill to get final approval in the Senate. How it fares in the House, which last year voted in favor of a voluntary labeling regime, remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether President Obama will sign the bill.

In a brief chat with reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Roberts said he had spoken with Representative Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, but did not know how the House would vote.

“I would describe his viewpoint as guarded,” Mr. Roberts said of Mr. Conaway, a Republican congressman from Texas. “They do not want a mandatory bill, but this is the last train that is leaving town.”

The fight over G.M.O. labeling has been long, contentious and expensive. Food and biotech companies spent roughly $100 million to oppose it in 2015 alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that favors labeling.

The money helped defeat state labeling proposals in California, Colorado, Oregon and elsewhere. But many food executives fretted that those were Pyrrhic victories, since their own research was showing that most consumers wanted to know what foods contained genetically engineered ingredients.

In 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered whole foods and foods containing ingredients derived from genetically modified crops like corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. It went into effect last week.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and biotech industry challenged the law in court, but by the time a judge ruled in favor of Vermont last year, many companies had already begun the process of figuring out how to comply with the tiny state’s law. That may make the reach of the Senate bill somewhat limited, as some companies have already started to label their products to meet Vermont’s requirements.

Campbell Soup was the first to break ranks, announcing in January that it would put G.M.O. labels on all its products nationally. General Mills, ConAgra and others quickly followed suit, and now many food packages contain tiny print affirming the presence of genetically engineered ingredients.

“We believe that is the clearest and most transparent way to communicate with consumers on this issue that so many of them have said is important to them,” said Mark R. Alexander, president of Campbell’s simple meals and beverages business in the Americas.

The Vermont law requires a plain language statement on the package itself. The Senate bill allows companies to choose from three options for of telling consumers about the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in their products: a statement on the package, directions to a website or phone number, or a QR code, also known as a quick response code. People can scan the code with their smartphone to get a variety of information about a product.

Proponents of labeling insisted that nothing short of text on packages would do. Some, including Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and erstwhile presidential candidate, also raised concerns over the definition in the bill for determining which foods would require labels, a sign that if the bill becomes law, legal challenges will almost certainly follow.

The bill states that foods requiring labeling must “contain genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques” and be modified in a way that could not be replicated through conventional breeding.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees most food labeling in the country, said such language would exempt foods containing oils and sweeteners that, after being processed, no longer contain any genetic trace of the genetically modified crops they came from.

On the Senate floor on Wednesday, Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan who helped write the bill, dismissed the F.D.A.’s interpretation, noting that the agency has long opposed G.M.O. labeling on the grounds that genetically engineered foods are safe.

Senator Stabenow said that such exemptions meant that Fettuccine Alfredo would be labeled but Fettuccine Alfredo with chicken and broccoli would not.

“Somebody tell me why that makes any sense from a consumer standpoint,” she said.

The Department of Agriculture, which would be responsible for administering the G.M.O. labeling program under the Senate bill, said it would be able to require labels on products containing such ingredients. The U.S.D.A. said that, in total, it would be able to require labeling on 24,000 more products than are covered under the Vermont law, which exempts things like cheese, which can be processed with a genetically engineered enzyme, and meats and foods containing meat.



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