WASHINGTON – The Senate failed to advance a bill Wednesday that would have outlawed states from passing laws that require food packages to disclose the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A procedural vote to close debate on the controversial legislation, which provided no federal alternative for mandatory on-package GMO designation, fell short of the 60 votes needed to move the bill to an approval vote.

Consumer groups claimed victory for the right of people to know what is in their food. The defeat was a blow to the food industry, including Minnesota-based General Mills, Land O'Lakes and Hormel, which oppose mandatory on-package GMO labels and want to avoid a new Vermont law that takes effect in July that requires them.

Minnesota Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar both voted against cloture.

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Franken acknowledged the need to avoid problems caused by different state labeling laws. But he said the GMO labeling bill offered by Sen. Pat Roberts, R.-Kan., did not include "a single, meaningful standard at the federal level."

Klobuchar voted to approve a similar Roberts' sponsored labeling bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee March 1. At that time, Klobuchar said her vote was intended to move the bill to the Senate floor so it could be modified with pro-consumer amendments. But her decision to vote for a bill that killed state labeling laws without providing a mandatory national on-package GMO labeling alternative spurred criticism by some of her constituents.

"I voted in committee to advance the bill while stating at the time that it needed more consumer provisions," Klobuchar said in a statement to the Star Tribune Wednesday. "My vote today was a procedural one which simply meant that I believe that changes still need to be made to the bill. I remain hopeful that we can reach a compromise on a bill that avoids subjecting our entire food supply to a patchwork of state laws while creating a national uniform standard that works for consumers."

Klobuchar did not address a letter sent to her Tuesday by 24 Minnesota state legislators urging her to vote against the Roberts bill.

"We are writing to ask you to be a strong leader in the fight to protect consumers' right to know about genetically engineered ingredients in foods and the ability of states to act on that right," said the letter, signed by members of the Minnesota House and Senate who have tried — thus far without success — to pass a state GMO labeling law.

Supporters of the Minnesota labeling bill signaled their willingness to accept federal labeling legislation only if it required mandatory on-package disclosure of the presence of GMOs.

The federal bill that was voted down Wednesday did not do that. It allowed the food industry to offer smartphone scan codes, telephone numbers and website addresses as alternatives to simply saying on packages if products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

State Rep. Karen Clark, a sponsor of Minnesota GMO labeling legislation, called those alternatives "ridiculous" and "discriminatory."

Clark said Klobuchar "started on the wrong side" of the GMO labeling issue. "I'm pleased that she voted against [the Roberts bill] and is listening to her constituents," Clark said.

Even for Minnesota leaders who refused to sign the letter to Klobuchar, the need for a national on-package GMO disclosure rule remains an issue.

"Helping people make educated choices" is important," said state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who spoke to Klobuchar after the agriculture committee vote. Kahn said Klobuchar insisted that she "wanted to stay in the game" to ensure an "acceptable outcome."

For people like Kahn there is only one acceptable outcome if the federal government is going to take away states' rights: A federal mandate for on-package disclosure of GMOs.

In a floor debate before Wednesday's U.S. Senate vote, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D.-Ore., called that "a simple one-second test" that the Roberts bill failed. Merkley called listing toll-free telephone numbers, smartphone scanning codes and website information time-consuming "shams" that make it unnecessarily hard for people to get a basic piece of information that the vast majority of Americans say they want.

But that continues to be a sticking point for the food industry. In a statement to the Star Tribune Land O'Lakes CEO Chris Policinski, who has decried the impact of individual state GMO labeling laws and mandatory on-package GMO designations in Congressional testimony, called for "a national labeling standard [that] can provide consumers with the transparency they seek without demonizing technology that is safe, keeps food costs low and allows us to grow more food with less environmental impact."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123