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 the 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 standard, announced they don't want to support the Roberts-Stabenow deal.
The plan would require food companies to disclose which products contained genetically modified ingredients, but allow companies the option of placing text on a package or providing a QR (Quick Response) code, phone number or website that would link consumers to more information.
The announcement comes as many large food companies, including Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg's and General Mills, have already begun labeling some of their products in anticipation of the Vermont law. Estimates are that roughly 75 percent of processed food in the U.S. contain genetically-modified ingredients, according to 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 system and even cover more products than the Vermont law. But, he said he's disappointed that consumers will now have to rely on smart phones 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 Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who said he was glad the deal 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.