WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday said they have agreed on what could become the first mandatory national standard for labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms — better known as GMOs.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican committee chairman, and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat, negotiated a compromise just ahead of the first mandatory state GMO labeling law, which takes effect in Vermont July 1.
The national standard still faces a Senate vote and agreement from the House of Representatives, which earlier this year voted for a food industry-backed national ban on mandatory on-package GMO labels.
The new Senate agreement requires foods from big companies to carry one of three types of GMO notices — text, a symbol or an electronic digital link. Small food manufacturers would also have the option of using telephone numbers or websites on packages.
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken said they were reviewing the details of the proposal.
Klobuchar and Franken opposed an earlier Senate bill that mirrored the House bill in outlawing mandatory on-package GMO disclosure at the state and national levels. That bill failed to gain enough support to come to a vote in March. Opponents said the federal government should not block state labeling bills without providing a national plan that lets shoppers determine the presence of genetically engineered ingredients.
Reaction from Minnesota’s major food companies to the most recent agreement was positive.
General Mills, which had already changed its packages to conform with the Vermont law, said it needed to study the Roberts-Stabenow plan to see if it would require any additional changes in packaging. But the company welcomed the possibility of a countrywide standard.
“Without this national solution we risked having a system of 50 different regulations impacting our packages,” the company said in a statement.
Hormel, another of Minnesota’s major food companies, endorsed the compromise and called for its passage in the Senate and the House.
“We understand our consumers’ expectations are evolving, especially when it comes to the ingredients in their food, and believe a solution like SmartLabel™ [the digital link option] will provide them with transparent, consistent, science-based product ingredient information,” the company said in a statement.
Qualified favorable reactions
Land O’Lakes CEO Chris Policinski traveled from Minnesota to Washington months ago to testify against mandatory on-package GMO disclosure. On Thursday, Policinski said “full transparency requires engagement in a consumer dialogue well beyond a few words on a package.” But he added that he was pleased with the Senate agreement because it was necessary “to create an orderly environment for food companies to communicate with the consumer.”
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a food industry group that lobbied to avoid any mandatory on-package GMO labels, accepted the Senate compromise as a solution that “increases consumer access to additional product information without stigmatizing a safe, proven technology that is relied on by American farmers.”
Just Label It, a group of consumer advocates and organic food producers, welcomed the requirement for on-package GMO disclosure, but fretted over the digital link option.
“While we are pleased this proposal will finally create a national, mandatory GMO disclosure system, protects organic labels, and will cover more food than Vermont’s groundbreaking GMO labeling law, we are disappointed that the proposal will require many consumers to rely on smartphones to learn basic information about their food,” Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, said in a statement. “This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect — a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package.”
Peterson wants to study it
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking minority member on the House Agriculture Committee, supported the House ban on all mandatory on-package GMO disclosure. Peterson said he would study the Senate proposal. “I am committed to finding a solution that balances the consumer desire for information with the scientific evidence of the safety of these crops,” he said.