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Senators Reach Deal On National GMO Labeling Bill

A new disclosure statement on a package of peanut M&Ms candy notes they are "partially produced with genetic engineering."
Lisa Rathke
A new disclosure statement on a package of peanut M&Ms candy notes they are "partially produced with genetic engineering."

Just a week before a Vermont law kicks in requiring labels on food containing genetically modified ingredients, U.S. Senate agriculture leaders announced a deal Thursday that takes the power out of states' hands — and sets a mandatory national system for GM disclosures on food products.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, unveiled the plan that had been negotiated for weeks with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

Senate Democrats from farm country called it a win for consumers and families, while Roberts said it would end "denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace" brought on by Vermont's state law.

But it was clearly an uneasy compromise, with critics of the plan making for strange bedfellows on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat who supports his state's mandatory law, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which wants a voluntary GMO labeling standard, announced their opposition to the Roberts-Stabenow deal.

Under the plan, food companies would be required to disclose which products contain genetically modified ingredients. But companies would have a range of options in just how they make that disclosure: They could place text on food packaging, provide a QR (Quick Response) code, or direct consumers to a phone number or a website with more information.

News of the deal comes as many large food companies, including Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg's and General Mills, have already begun labeling some of their products in anticipation of the Vermont law. Roughly 75 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients, according to estimates from the Center for Food Safety.

The deal falls short for those who wanted a national standard much like Vermont's.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, the maker of organic yogurt, and chairman of the Just Label It campaign, released an announcement saying he was pleased that the new plan will create a national, mandatory labeling system and even cover more products than the Vermont law. But, he said he's disappointed that consumers will now have to rely on smartphones to learn about their food.

"This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect — a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package," Hirshberg said.

The deal also was a tough sell for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who said he was glad it would solve the problem of a patchwork of state labeling laws. But, while he will support the plan, he said he hopes lawmakers would move away from "a non-science based agenda driving law and rules."

"The science has proven that GMO foods are safe and equivalent to non-GMO foods from a safety perspective," Grassley said. "Giving consumers a choice is a good thing, and it's time to realize that there's a place for all types of food in our consumer-driven economy without stigmatizing another scientifically safe alternative."

Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said she was pleased with the bill and hopes the Senate passes it quickly.

"This bipartisan agreement ensures consumers across the nation can get clear, consistent information about their food and beverage ingredients and prevents a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling laws," she said.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his group will take some time to review the plan as it opposes mandatory food labels.

"There are no – and never have been any – documented health risks from genetically engineered food in the marketplace," he said.

Meanwhile, the Vermont law will go into effect on July 1 but would presumably be nullified when Congress finalizes a bill. Just how long that will take is uncertain. Roberts and Stabenow are working on the bill and haven't yet set a time to bring it to a vote, said Sarah Little, a Roberts spokeswoman.

Should it pass the Agriculture Committee and the full Senate, the plan will also have to be run through the U.S. House, which passed a bill last July that barred states from creating such laws but established a voluntary labeling system.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.