US Senate deals small victory to GMO labeling advocates

The Senate blocked a bill Wednesday that would overrode state laws requiring mandatory labels for food products containing genetically modified organisms.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/File
An Indian scientist points to a patch of genetically modified rapeseed crop under trial in New Delhi on Feb. 13, 2015. Laws on labeling such crops when they appear in American food are under debate in Congress.

The scientific community and the government may say that foods containing genetically modified organisms are perfectly safe to eat, but a resounding majority of Americans are not so sure. Congress just handed a small victory to those concerned consumers.

The Senators blocked a Republican-led bill on Wednesday to override state laws that require mandatory labeling of GMO foods. Supporters of the bill say state-specific labeling laws unfairly impose speech restrictions on food makers and could lead to a cumbersome patchwork of legislation that varies from state to state.

Unable to drum up support in Washington for a federal mandate, advocates for labeling, which include organic food companies that cannot use GMOs because of federal law, have taken their battle to the states. In 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a law mandating GMO labels. That law will go into effect in July, barring an intervention from Congress.

The bill reveals a split in thinking among Americans and the food industry itself. Several food and beverage-producing trade groups spent $100 million lobbying against labeling requirements last year, according to the Environmental Working Group, which favors labeling. Other companies, including Whole Foods Market Inc, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, and Campbell Soup Co, are preemptively labeling GMOs or simply abandoning them.

The blocked bill is alternately called the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act by its proponents or the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. The ultimate disagreement concerns a food that most Americans find concerning, despite reassurances from the American Medical Association, the National Academies, the World Health Organization, and the US Food and Drug Association.  As Jessica Mendoza wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:

Public opinion has remained largely anti-GMO. Just under 40 percent of American adults say they think GM foods are safe, versus almost 90 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Many in the food industry have responded accordingly to the anti-GMO trend: Chipotle’s announcement to go GMO-free follows similar decisions by companies such as Whole Foods, which has pledged to clear its shelves of GM ingredients by 2018; Walmart, which has been expanding its selection of organic foods; and General Mills, which last year stopped the use of GM sugar and cornstarch in the breakfast cereal Cheerios. 

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill to block the state laws, and the Senate's deadline is July 1, when the first state law takes effect in Vermont. 

Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, author of the failed bill, says that he is "at the ready to work on a solution," according to Reuters. He said he worked late on Tuesday night with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) to find a compromise.

She said although GMOs are safe, Americans want to know about them.

"A growing number of American consumers want to know more about the food they eat," she said, according to the Associated Press. "And they have the right to know."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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