WASHINGTON — In a move that sparked outrage from consumer advocates and praise from the food industry, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would stop states from requiring food labels to note the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined two other committee Democrats and 11 Republicans in supporting the measure. Klobuchar said she did not think the bill she voted for would pass the entire Senate without some pro-consumer amendments, but said she wanted to get the process started.
The vote gave the food industry, including Minnesota-based companies such as Cargill, General Mills and Land O’Lakes, everything it wanted to derail state GMO labeling laws, especially a law set to take effect in Vermont in July.
“We appreciate the hard work of both Republicans and Democrats to find a workable solution to give consumers in all 50 states accurate and consistent information on their food labels,” Cargill said in a statement.
General Mills and Land O’Lakes echoed those sentiments.
Land O’Lakes CEO Chris Policinski, who had come to Washington in the past to offer objections to state GMO labeling laws, on Tuesday expressed support for “all types of farming, including biotechnology methods that have been proven safe for consumer health and for the environment.”
General Mills said it hoped “to see the full Senate pass this legislation as quickly as possible.”
The bill approved by the committee offers no provisions for mandatory GMO labeling at the national level. It also requires a taxpayer-funded public education campaign that explains scientific evidence of the benefits of “agricultural biotechnology.”
Klobuchar told the Star Tribune she expects amendments to be offered on the floor of the Senate. She supports one by Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana that would, according to her staff, “create a national, voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard and establish ambitious goals for companies to make information available to consumers through that voluntary program.”
“If food companies fail to make sufficient information available,” the staff explanation continued, “then a national food labeling standard for bioengineering becomes mandatory.”
Klobuchar stressed that a bill needs to pass in order to avoid a patchwork of state laws. She said she has met with labeling advocates who believe GMO labeling is a “right to know” issue rather than a “safety issue.” Still, she declined to endorse mandatory national GMO labeling as the committee’s ranking Democrat, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, did in voting against the state labeling ban.
To supplant mandatory GMO labeling laws in all 50 states, Stabenow said, a federal law “must provide a pathway to mandatory national disclosure.” The bill the agriculture committee passed does not do that. It calls for a voluntary labeling standard that does not allow “claims regarding safety or quality” of genetically engineered food vs. nongenetically engineered food.
Klobuchar voted for the lesser standard and the ban on state laws along with Donnelly and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Six other Democrats voted against it.
Labeling backers unhappy
Klobuchar’s stance drew sharp criticism from GMO labeling proponents who pointed to surveys that show that nearly 90 percent of Americans support disclosure.
“Sen. Klobuchar voted against consumers’ right to know,” said Scott Faber, who helps direct the national labeling movement.
Outlawing state GMO labeling laws also undermines legislation that has been offered in the Minnesota Legislature. This brought a stiff rebuke from statewide labeling advocates.
“We are asking for a simple disclosure of fact so that we can make our own decisions about what to feed ourselves and our families,” Right to Know Minnesota’s Heather Flesland told the Star Tribune. “It is not for the industry or Sen. Klobuchar to decide what information we find relevant when making purchasing decisions for our families.”
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, an industry trade group focused on stopping state GMO labeling laws and banning any form of mandatory national GMO labeling, praised Klobuchar. “Sen. Klobuchar demonstrated real leadership on behalf of the consumers and farmers in Minnesota,” coalition spokeswoman Claire Parker said.
Despite Klobuchar’s belief that the current legislation cannot pass the Senate, Parker predicted “no major roadblocks” on the route to approval in the Republican-majority chamber. House Republicans with the help of Democrats including Minnesota Reps. Collin Peterson, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz have already passed similar, though not identical label-banning legislation.
Aspects of the debate
Much of the debate surrounding GMO labeling is focused on the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never judged genetically engineered foods to be a threat to public health or nutrition. Science should govern labeling, supporters of the Senate bill said Tuesday.
Turning the debate into one about commerce rather than transparency allows opponents of labeling to make economic arguments that national or state legislation will lead to increased food costs.
Campbell Soup Co. recently broke with the food industry and announced plans to voluntarily post GMO labels on its products. The European Commission requires disclosure of GMOs in products sold in member countries. Still, extending that mandate to the U.S. has been a protracted and expensive battle that may yet be lost.
Vermont officials did not respond to a request for comment on the agriculture committee’s action. But committee member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it “tramples states’ rights.”