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Senate Food Fight Erupts Over Sham GMO Labeling Bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders has vowed to put a hold on the legislation, which could be voted on days after Vermont's law takes effect

Lauren McCauley

The pending "compromise" GMO labeling bill has food safety and consumer advocates both in and out of government scrambling to block the legislation, which they warn will destroy popular efforts to label products made with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has vowed to put a hold on the legislation, which would prevent it from coming up for debate unless proponents can muster 60 votes.

The legislation is seen as a direct threat to a GMO labeling law passed in Sanders' home state of Vermont, which is slated to take effect on Friday. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, also from Vermont, on Tuesday declared his opposition to the legislation.

"Vermont will become the first state in the nation to require GMO labeling," Sanders said in a press statement. "This is a triumph for ordinary Americans over the powerful interests of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations. We cannot allow Vermont’s law to be overturned by bad federal legislation that has just been announced."

Sanders promised to do everything he can to defeat the bi-partisan bill, introduced last week by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

According to reporting by Politico's Helena Bottemiller Evich, cited by Tom Philpott, Roberts and Stabenow have been pushing hard for the full Senate to consider their compromise bill and "have industrial agriculture interests at their backs."

To counter the powerful influence of food industry lobbyists like the Grocery Manufacturers of America and others, more than 70 consumer, food safety, farm, environmental, and religious groups along with several independent food companies sent a joint letter (pdf) to all members of the Senate on Tuesday voicing their strong opposition to the legislation. It reads in part:

The process that created this legislation has been profoundly undemocratic and a violation of basic legislative practice. The bill addresses a critical issue for the American public, yet it was neither subject to a single hearing nor any testimony whatsoever. Rather, the bill’s preemption of the democratically decided-upon labeling laws of several states, and seed laws of numerous states and municipalities, is the result of non-transparent “bargaining” between two senators and industry interest groups.

...We oppose the bill because it is actually a non-labeling bill under the guise of a mandatory labeling bill. It exempts major portions of current and future GMO foods from labeling; it is on its face discriminatory against low income, rural and elderly populations; it is a gross violation of the sovereignty of numerous states around the nation; and it provides no enforcement against those who violate the law.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday posted its technical comments (pdf) about the proposed legislation to the Senate Agriculture Committee and the feedback was similarly damning.

According to analysis by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the FDA notably "red flags the bill’s narrow and ambiguous definition of 'bioengineering,' which 'will likely mean that many foods from [GMO] sources will not be subject to this bill. For instance, oil made from [GMO] soy would not have any genetic material in it. Likewise, starches and purified proteins would not be covered." 

The FDA further notes that it "may be difficult" for any GMO food to qualify for labeling under the bill because, as CFS put it, "it would have to be proven that a GMO product’s modification could not be achieved through conventional breeding or be found in nature – something near impossible to determine. This means most GMO foods would not be subject to mandatory labeling under this bill."

This fight has also sharply divided the organic industry, according to Huffington Post journalist Carey Gillam, who reported Wednesday that the Organic Trade Association (OTA), "signed off on the deal despite the fact that many leading organic businesses and groups are aligned with consumers in wanting on-package labeling."

According to Gilliam, the bill could reach the Senate floor as early as next week.

In the meantime, opponents of the bill are encouraging people to contact their senators and urge them to reject the bill or any other "compromise that would restrict states' rights for labeling and result in anything less than clear mandatory on-package labels that state 'contains genetically engineered ingredients.'"


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