THE clock is ticking to find a solution for food labeling that avoids a patchwork of 50 different state laws (or even more, if considering local decisions) when it comes to biotechnology. The House approved its labeling bill last year, and the Senate may be on a path to finally do its part to advance a solution.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) introduced a bill that would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up nationwide standards for voluntary disclosure of biotech ingredients. Those nationwide standards would pre-empt biotech labeling laws at the state and local levels, including Vermont's law, which takes effect July 1. The bill also directs USDA to provide science-based education and outreach about biotechnology, in coordination with other federal agencies.
Roberts' bill has the support of more than 650 farmers, cooperatives, agribusinesses, processors, seed makers, food and feed manufacturers, lenders and retailers.
Just 10 days later, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed Roberts' bill on a 14-6 vote. Three Democrats — Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.) — voted with Republicans on the committee to allow the bill to move to the full Senate.
The three senators, although not fully supportive of Roberts' chairman's mark, said they want to continue working together to get a bill to the floor that can still be improved and eventually approved by the full Senate. Donnelly said senators have made more progress toward a resolution in the short time between the bill's introduction and markup than in the previous year.
"Every day we spend stuck in partisan debate about this is one more day when consumers don't get the information they need and another day when farmers are uncertain about what is going to be expected of them," Donnelly said. "Instead of pitting conventional farmers versus organics or concerned parents versus biotech companies, we need to quickly enact legislation that ensures consumers can get information they want without sticking misleading labels on every food product."
A day after the committee vote, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) introduced his own solution that would require food makers to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients on the Nutrition Facts label.
The bill — co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Jon Tester (D., Mont.) — would give manufacturers four labeling options, ranging from using a parenthesis after the relevant ingredient to using a symbol developed by the Food & Drug Administration in consultation with food manufacturers. None of the options would require disclosures or warning statements on the front panel.
Earlier this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he spent seven hours in a room with people on both sides of the labeling debate trying to come up with a solution.
Vilsack said the challenge is to create a process that respects people's right to find the information they consider important but to do it in a way that doesn't send a false impression about a product's safety. He said it's also important not to key in on just biotechnology, as other technologies and food issues should offer the same transparency.
Ideas currently on the table include allowing consumers to dial an 800 number, visit websites or scan a QR code.
"This needs to be a 21st-century conversation, (but it) may be stuck in the 20th century," Vilsack said, questioning whether providing information in size-four font really gives consumers what they seek.
"This is not the first or last time we're going to have this conversation about a production method or how food is produced," Vilsack said. The final labeling standards need to be flexible enough to add or subtract as issues arise in terms of what people want in their food, he added.