A compromise bill that would create the first nationwide labeling standard for genetically modified foods cleared a major hurdle Wednesday as Senators voted 65-32 to proceed to final debate.
Negotiated between Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, and Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the bill would require producers to identify foods that contain genetically modified ingredients with text on packages, a symbol or a link to a website with a bar code that can be scanned by a smartphone.
The bill has drawn fierce opposition from consumer advocates, who complain that it contains too many loopholes and zero consequences for companies that fail to properly label their products. They argue that the labels wouldn’t be easily recognizable for consumers and the bill’s narrow definition of bioengineering could exclude refined sugars, soybean oils and many other products made from genetically modified crops.
Wednesday’s procedural vote was interrupted briefly by anti-GMO protesters in the visitors’ gallery who shouted, “It’s a corporate bill,” and threw what appeared to be dollar bills onto the Senate floor.
The margin of victory indicates the bill easily will win the simple majority needed to pass this week after debate.
“This clears the pathway for a final vote on passage, and I remain optimistic sound science and affordable food will prevail,” Roberts said in a statement. “Both farmers and consumers deserve this certainty.”
In a speech on the Senate floor before the vote, Roberts stressed that biotechnology products are safe.
Over and over again, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have testified before Congress that genetic engineering is safe for the environment, for other plants and for the nation’s food supply.
“Our amendment strikes a careful balance,” said Roberts, who worked for months with Stabenow to hammer out a bipartisan deal on the bill’s language. “It certainly is not perfect from my perspective. It’s not the best possible bill, but it is the best bill possible under these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today.”
If the bill doesn’t pass, Roberts warned, a patchwork of state labeling laws will soon wreak havoc on the flow of interstate commerce.
“Unfortunately the impact of those decisions will be felt across the country and around the globe,” he said. “Those decisions impact the farmers in fields, who would be pressured to grow less efficient crops so manufacturers could avoid these demonizing labels. . . . Those labeling laws will ultimately impact consumers who will suffer from much-higher-priced food.”
Some lawmakers had expressed anger that GMO labeling laws in their states would be pre-empted by the federal legislation crafted by Roberts and Stabenow.
The first such law went into effect in Vermont last Friday.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said the timing of the bill was not an accident.
“Its goal is to overturn and rescind the very significant legislation passed in the state of Vermont,” he said.
Sanders has vowed to do everything he can to defeat the bill, but his options are limited after Wednesday’s vote, which makes a filibuster impossible.
He and other lawmakers opposed to the Roberts-Stabenow legislation held a news conference on Capitol Hill before the vote to denounce it as inadequate.
“The American people have a right to know what they’re eating,” Sanders said. “That is why states like Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Alaska have adopted laws to label goods containing GMOs and why many other states are interested and on the path to do that.”
After final passage in the Senate, the bill must pass the House of Representatives before heading to the president’s desk to be signed into law.