Senate passes cloture vote on GMO labeling bill

Roberts-Stabenow compromise bill on food labeling gets bipartisan support to advance for full floor vote likely this week.

The Senate cleared its most significant hurdle Wednesday afternoon in advancing legislation to address the patchwork of state labeling laws for foods that may contain genetically engineered (GE) material. The Senate voted 65-32 on the cloture vote, which sets up the final vote in the Senate as soon as Thursday. Members now have 30 hours to debate the measure before it moves to a final vote.

“I’m pleased with the outcome of today’s cloture vote,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) who helped broker the bipartisan compromise bill with his ag committee colleague Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.). “This clears the pathway for a final vote on passage, and I remain optimistic sound science and affordable food will prevail. Both farmers and consumers deserve this certainty.”

Earlier in the day, Roberts and Stabenow took to the Senate floor to encourage their colleagues to support the cloture vote. Roberts pointed out that more than 1,000 food and agricultural interests have voiced support for the genetically modified organism (GMO) bill, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Grocery Manufacturers Assn. and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Stabenow, who had held out on supporting a voluntary GMO labeling bill, said this is a mandatory bill that allows for three different ways to label, including: on-pack wording similar to what is called for by Vermont; a symbol or word such as GMO, or QR codes. She said the marketplace will drive where this goes and what companies choose to do.

Opponents of the QR code inclusion have said it limits those who have access to smartphones to quickly obtain information. In her floor comments, Stabenow said Nielsen reports that 82% of American households own a smartphone, and that number will very quickly become 90%, according to estimates. She said for someone who doesn’t have a smartphone or lives in an area with poor broadband, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been asked to survey those areas and make sure there’s more accessibility to scanners in those stores.

After last week’s vote, some skepticism was raised by a technical assessment provided by the Food & Drug Administration. Key concern of the report was the bill’s narrow scope, particularly the bill’s definition of “bioengineering”, which would severely limit which products would or would not need to be labeled. FDA went on to say that the bill’s phrase on food “that contains genetic material’ will likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to the labeling requirements. For instance, oil made from GE soy would not have any genetic material in it, and so would not be labeled according to the definitions in this bill.

Supporters of the bill had focused on a USDA assessment, which indicated that USDA's general counsel said regulatory officials will follow the spirit of the law when crafting rules and require labeling of all GMO ingredients that gain USDA approval as well as those developed with novel technologies.

“USDA, not FDA, will be the sole agency who will implement mandatory national labeling,” Stabenow said. She said FDA has actually denied petitions to label GMOs because there is no scientific reason to, which is why USDA would handle it under its marketing authority.

Vermont law impact

Nearly 3,000 products have been pulled from Vermont supermarket shelves in the past week as a result of companies making decisions not to sell certain products there, now that the state’s own mandatory labeling law is in effect.

Also, ahead of the vote a recent online survey of 1,665 online primary shoppers examined consumer understanding of five common on-pack food labels, and found that on-pack labeling of genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) strongly misleads consumers.

When consumers were asked about the GMO label statements mandated by the Vermont law, the survey showed that on-pack labeling misled substantial percentages of consumers to wrongly perceive the labeled product as less safe, less healthful, less nutritious and worse for the environment. The Vermont label requirements are so disparaging to consumer perceptions of products that approximately 73% of consumers indicated they would be less likely to buy foods bearing one of the required on-pack GMO label disclosures.

The data come from a large consumer survey conducted June 13-21, 2016 by the MSR Group and sponsored by American Soybean Assn. and fellow food and agriculture trade associations, including the Corn Refiners Assn., National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Grain and Feed Assn., and SNAC International. The five food labels tested were common food label statements related to trans-fat, allergens, gluten, organic and GMOs.

The Vermont on-pack GMO disclosure requirements are powerfully disparaging. The Vermont mandated GMO label statement caused approximately --
- 36% of consumers to incorrectly perceive the food to be “less safe.”
- 28% of consumers to incorrectly perceive the food to be “less healthful.”
- 22% of consumers to incorrectly perceive the food to be “less nutritious.”
- 20% of consumers to incorrectly perceive the food to be “worse for the environment.”
- 73% of consumers to be less likely to buy the food.

Consumer perceptions varied significantly by age group. Using the Vermont law’s “produced with genetic engineering” disclosure option to illustrate, consumer perception that the labeled product is –

- “Less safe” ranged from 48% (18-34 years old) to 27% (35-44 years old).
- “Less nutritious” ranged from 45% (18-24 years old) to 7% (65+ years old).
- “Less healthful” ranged from 41% (18-24 years old) to 18% (65+ years old).
- “Worse for the environment” ranged from 32% (25-34 years old) to 13% (55+ years old).

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