Senator Sanders Asks For Help Defeating Stabenow-Roberts GMO Bill That Would Overrule Vermont’s Law

As the Vermont law requiring labels on food containing genetically modified ingredients kicks in, U.S. Senate agriculture leaders Senator Pat Roberts and Senator Debbie Stabenow agreed on language of legislation that would overrule the new Vermont GMO labeling law that went into effect Friday. The new legislation was negotiated for weeks, and this amendment to an existing law will set a weaker federal standard for GMO disclosure on food products than Vermont’s labeling law mandates.

The bipartisan deal would make it so that the food industry could decide exactly how they wished to inform consumers that foods contain GMOs and exclude numerous GMO products from labeling requirements. It also offers almost no recourse if the labeling requirement isn’t followed by the food industry. Stabenow is a top recipient in 2015-2016 of the farm bureaus industry’s money. Meanwhile, “Agricultural Service/Products” is Roberts’ fourth largest contributing industry.

The actual language that would affect Vermont’s strong labeling law is found in Senate Amendment 4935, the procedural action of substituting text in S. 764 with language agreed upon by Sens. Roberts and Stabenow, according to FMI. Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed the amendment for Senator Roberts which would create the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and alter the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. The Senate is expected to vote on the new standard next week during the most popular week for American vacationing.

“Monsanto, agribusiness and the bio-tech industry have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overturn legislation passed by Vermont, Connecticut, Maine and Alaska that calls for the labeling of GMO food,” Senator Sanders wrote in an email Friday asking his supporters to write to their own senators opposing the changes. “In fact, they are moving aggressively now because Vermont’s strong law goes into effect today.

GMO labeling advocates, including Democratic candidate for president Sen. Bernie Sanders, say that allowing companies to merely place a QR code or direct consumers to a website for ingredient information is “weak” legislation. They say that this new text devised by Roberts and Stabenow benefits only the food industry and hides actual disclosure from the end consumer.

NPR explained the biggest problem that critics of Stabenow and Roberts’ plan have with the proposed legislation.

“Under the plan, food companies would be required to disclose which products contain genetically modified ingredients. But companies would have a range of options in just how they make that disclosure: They could place text on food packaging, provide a QR (Quick Response) code, or direct consumers to a phone number or a website with more information.”

“The deal falls short for those who wanted a national standard much like Vermont’s,” NPR‘s report claims.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It campaign, released an announcement that he is disappointed that consumers will most likely have to rely on smartphones to learn about the foods that they are buying.

“This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect — a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package,” Hirshberg explained.

Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says that she thinks Stabenow and Roberts’ amendment is a good plan and praises the future of the #Smartlabel, which would disclose more information, but only to those who can access the information. The Twitter account for the Grocery Manufacturers Association claims that people without smartphones with which to scan the products or cell phones with which to call a toll free number to learn about a product would probably be able to get assistance from store employees while shopping.

The Des Moines Register says that the bill will also potentially exclude thousands of items that have been made with biotech ingredients. According to their report, the Food and Drug Administration expressed concern in a letter that the bill’s use of the words “that contains genetic material” would exempt oil made from GE soybeans, starches, and purified proteins made from GMOs from requiring a GMO label. Meghan Cline, a spokesperson with the Senate Agriculture Committee that is working with Stabenow and Roberts, called the FDA’s comment “odd and misplaced,” the Des Moines Register reported.

Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs, confirmed the loophole pointed out by the FDA though.

“Unless they clarify that all GMOs are covered by the bill, USDA will be exhaustively lobbied to exclude foods with GMO sugars and oils from having to label,” Faber said. “It’s hard to estimate, but thousands and thousands of products may no longer have to be labeled.”

“There may be no genetically engineered food that we commonly eat that’s actually covered by this law as it’s currently written,” Jean Halloran of Consumers Union said. “I have to think that that’s a drafting error, but nobody’s said they’re going to fix it.”

According to the FDA, one paragraph in the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill narrowly defines bioengineered food and would limit the responsibility of the food industry to label only foods where the genetic modification “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Approximately 70 consumer groups and organic farming associations are publicly opposing the Stabenow-Roberts legislation. The groups have called it “a non-labeling bill under the guise of a mandatory labeling bill,” and say that the bill not only allows for barely noticeable disclosure, but also could exempt almost 99 percent of all foods that contain what consumers consider genetically modified ingredients.

The consumer groups and Senator Sanders say that besides the allowance of practically disguised disclosure and the loophole that exempts many GMOs, the bill also provides essentially no consequences for companies that fail to properly label the foods. Sanders said the Senate-proposed federal GMO labeling bill “would create a confusing, misleading and unenforceable national standard” and is calling on his massive following and email subscribers to take action against the bill proposed by Stabenow and Roberts.

“If this bill is passed by the Senate, it would be a clear case of Congress acting on behalf of industry interests, rather than on those of their constituents,” Halloran said. “We urge all senators to stand up for consumers – and real disclosure – and oppose this bill.”

The U.S. Senate is set to vote on the negotiated language changes to the GMO labeling bill by Roberts and Stabenow as early as next week, and unless the opponents’ calls to action result in a congressional change of heart, it is expected to pass.

[Image via Pixabay]