Despite opposition from consumer advocacy groups, a controversial bill on the labeling of genetically modified (GM or GMO) food passed a cloture vote in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, even as critics warned the legislation is needlessly complicated and bends to the agriculture lobby interests.
According to The Hill, "the Democrats who voted in support of the bill included Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tom Carper (Del.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Chris Coons (Del.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Al Franken (Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Mark Warner (Va.)."
The so-called "compromise" bill, introduced in June by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), allows food companies to label GMOs by using codes, symbols, or packaging language.
Critics slammed the bill's sponsors for negotiating the legislation behind closed doors, accusing Stabenow and Roberts, among others, of being in Big Ag's pocket. According to an analysis of OpenSecrets.org data by the group Organic Consumers Association (OCA), supporters of the bill received more than twice as much money in campaign donations from companies like Monsanto than opponents. Ahead of the vote Wednesday, OCA activists disrupted the Senate session to dump $2,000 on the chamber floor to protest the back-room dealings.
In addition to being confusing, the bill discriminates against certain consumers, including low-income, minority, rural, and elderly populations, by allowing food companies to use QR codes that require being scanned by smartphones, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) said on Wednesday.
"It is deeply disturbing that a majority in the Senate would support a bill that openly discriminates against America's low income, rural and elderly populations. This denies them their right to know simply because they are not able to afford or have access to smartphones," said CFS executive director Andrew Kimbrell. "The bill itself is poorly drafted and would exempt many and perhaps most current genetically engineered foods from labeling. It was written behind closed doors between a handful of Senators and the big chemical and food companies. It is a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, a sham and a legislative embarrassment."
Opponents also noted that the bill simply goes against public opinion, with recent polls showing that more than 90 percent of Americans want GMO labeling on their food. If the bill passes into law, it will nullify state-level labeling efforts, such as the historic Vermont law that requires companies to use explicit language on their packages.
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Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday:
This is a slap in the face for all of the advocates that have worked hard to pass state-level measures because they believe strongly that labels should be transparent, and people should have the choice to decide whether or not they purchase and consume foods with genetically engineered ingredients. The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable for stripping away this transparency.
If this bill becomes law, the industry wins what are essentially voluntary requirements under this GMO labeling "compromise," which does not mandate recalls, penalties or fines for noncompliance with the incredibly weak requirements of the bill that will likely leave many GMO ingredients exempt from any labeling requirements. And the bill gives companies the option to use discriminatory QR codes that require a smartphone to access basic information about the food on store shelves.
The bill is expected to get final approval in the Senate as early as this week. The U.S. House of Representatives will also have to pass its own version of the legislation before the Senate bill can become law. Hauter called on President Barack Obama not to sign it if it reaches his desk.
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) tweeted to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry—where Stabenow is a ranking member:
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 6, 2016