On Tuesday morning, the Senate Agriculture Committee moved to advance its solution to a patchwork of state laws on biotech food labeling. While the committee's version — approved by a 14-6 vote — probably doesn’t have the votes needed to pass in the full Senate, the senators were in agreement on the importance of finding a solution with additional amendments or changes on the full Senate floor.
The chairman’s mark — introduced recently by Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) — 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.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.) said although they were not fully supportive of Roberts' mark, they want to continue working together to get a bill moving to the floor that can still be improved and eventually approved by the full Senate.
Donnelly said senators have made more progress towards a resolution in the past week 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.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), the committee's top Democrat, said she shares the urgency to get something done but believes a voluntary program is not enough to meet consumer demand.
“As I have said from the beginning of this process, for a solution that includes a 50-state pre-emption to receive the broad support necessary to pass the Senate, it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices,” Stabenow said in her opening remarks.
Heitkamp said it is important to guarantee that goods can move across state lines in a way that facilitates interstate commerce.
“There’s no doubt we need to strengthen chairman Robert’s bill — as it is, by no means, perfect — but standing by while a patchwork of labeling laws pop up across the country is not a formula for success," Heitkamp said. "Passing this bill out of committee is an important starting point as we try to reach bipartisan consensus in Congress to defend consumers, who have every right to know what’s in their food, while supporting producers so they can do their jobs without unnecessary hurdles."
Roberts explained, “It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue; it is a market issue. This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.”
Food labeling “is an area where we need a clear federal standard, not a piecemeal approach across the 50 states,” said Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation. “We’ve learned from experience in the dairy sector that we need a strong federal policy governing labeling claims. Otherwise, we’ll end up with an unworkable series of competing and confusing state policies.”
Roberts’ legislation has the support of more than 650 farmers, cooperatives, agribusinesses, processors, seed makers, handlers, food and feed manufacturers, lenders and retailers. The House passed legislation on this topic last July with a bipartisan vote of 275-150.
Senate leaders are expected to move the bill swiftly to the floor for final approval. "We hope the significant step taken today will galvanize congressional efforts to get federal pre-emption legislation on biotech labeling enacted expeditiously," National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA) president Randy Gordon said.
NGFA said congressional action is needed to avert major supply chain disruptions and inefficiencies in production, storage, transportation, manufacturing and distribution of food and feed that would translate into significant cost increases for consumers.
Gordon added, “If states create different labeling rules, food and feed manufacturers would be forced to either not serve that market or transfer the heavy costs of compliance to consumers. A national standard also would avoid the potential for labels to have different meanings in different states, which would lead to even greater costs and further confuse consumers."