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Voluntary GMO labeling bill stalled; companies start to add labels

Voluntary GMO labeling bill stalled; companies start to add labels
Supporters of bill disappointed; opponents elated. Food manufacturers decide its time to add labels.

Updated: Mars latest company to announce it will add GMO label.

Senators voted 49-48 March 16 to block S.2609, or the voluntary GMO labeling legislation. The bill needed 60 votes to advance.

The fate of the legislation is uncertain as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, voted against the legislation, which allows him to bring it back before the Senate, The Hill reported.

Agricultural groups were quick to react, with American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall issuing a strongly worded statement.

GMO labeling legislation stalled in the Senate on March 16. (Photo: Fuse/Thinkstock)

“It is inexcusable that today’s Senate vote on a voluntary federal GMO labeling bill that preempts a damaging patchwork of state measures fell short,” he said in the media statement. “To say we are angry with those senators who abandoned farmers and ranchers and turned their backs on rural America on this vote is an understatement. Their votes opposing this measure ignored science, threw our nation’s food system into disarray and undermined the public’s understanding of the many benefits of biotechnology in feeding a growing and hungry population.”

Related story: ASA urges farmers to speak up for GMO labeling

Food companies take action

Food companies are making decisions based upon what is happening Congress.

General Mills announced March 18 it will start labeling its products that contain genetically modified ingredients, according to Bloomberg. Campbell Soup Company earlier announced its support for mandatory labeling. Candy bar maker Mars became the latest to announce it will label its products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

In a statement, Mars said it believes GM ingredients are safe, but it is introducing the label to comply with the Vermont law that takes effect in July.

What's in the bill?

The Senate labeling bill, authored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, defines bioengineering as a food “that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Related story: Roberts introduces National Voluntary Bioengineered Food Labeling Standard

It requires a voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard be established within two years of enactment and prohibits quality claims based on GMO status. The bill doesn’t allow state labeling standards, such as the one due to take effect July 1 in Vermont. It also requires an education effort.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been negotiating with Roberts to reach an agreement on the bill, according to The Hill.

“We still see the possibility for a bipartisan agreement on this in the near future, and will continue working with Chairman Roberts and Senator Stabenow to realize this possibility," said National Corn Growers Association president Chip Bowling. “We urge the Senate to stand with farmers and consumers, not political activists. We must continue working to solve this critical issue.”

Related story: Roberts' labeling proposal passes Senate ag committee

Is compromise possible?

Several groups oppose the legislation, calling it the Denying Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act.

The Environmental Working Group said the failure of the bill offers Congress the opportunity to find a compromise.

“Consumers have made their voices heard to their elected representatives in the Senate and they said clearly, ‘We want the right to know more about our food,’” said Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs. “We are pleased that the Senate made the right decision to stop the DARK Act and we remain hopeful that congressional leaders can craft a national mandatory compromise that works for consumers and the food industry.”

Agricultural groups are hopeful, too, that congressional leaders can reach an agreement.

“Despite today’s vote, we believe a bi-partisan federal policy is within reach, based on discussions with Senate offices in the last few days,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. “We are committed to working to bridge differences and get a compromise agreement through the Senate. Passage of a coherent food label disclosure law by Congress is the only logical approach in order to avoid the chaotic mess that would arise from leaving this issue up to the whims of 50 different states.”

But it doesn’t look like it will be easy.

“Consumers just want to know what’s in their food,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. “Manufacturers and Congress shouldn’t make them jump through hoops to get that information.”

Related story: Is mandatory GMO labeling ahead?

The House passed a labeling bill last year.

Related story: House approves voluntary labeling bill

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