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Supporters of a state bill to require labels identifying foods made with genetically modified organisms rally in Connecticut in 2013.

Connecticut State Democrats/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Opposition stalls U.S. Senate bill aimed at blocking GMO food labels

Democrats in the U.S. Senate yesterday blocked a mostly Republican-led effort to bar states from requiring labels for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On a 48 to 49 vote, the bill—which would have instead set up a federal, voluntary GMO labeling system—fell well short of the 60 votes needed to clear a key procedural barrier.

The defeat of S. 2609, sponsored by Senator Pat Roberts (R–KS), brings the steadily progressing GOP-led push for a nationally uniform labeling system to a halt, at least for now. The House of Representatives had approved its own bill, H.R. 1599—which also would have blocked state GMO-labeling requirements and set up a federal GMO-free certification program—with mostly Republican votes last summer. The congressional push has been fueled in part by a growing number of state laws, including Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law, requiring GMO labeling.

Senator Bernie Sanders (D–VT), a Democratic presidential candidate and longtime champion of mandatory GMO labeling, celebrated the bill’s defeat. Roberts’s legislation “violates the will of the people of Vermont and the United States who overwhelmingly believe that genetically modified food should be labeled,” Sanders said in a statement. “Republicans like to talk about states’ rights, but now they are attempting to preempt the laws of Vermont and other states that seek to label GMOs.”

The bill’s supporters, meanwhile, had argued that the measure would set a science-based standard to give consumers more information, without stigmatizing biotechnology, all while ending a patchwork of state laws that was burdening foodmakers. On the Senate floor before the vote, Roberts noted that federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have repeatedly said GMOs are safe. “Not only are these products safe, but they provide benefits to the entire value chain, from producer to consumer,” by making agriculture more efficient and environmentally friendly, Roberts said.

Mandating GMO labeling means asking companies to provide information outside the realm of nutrition, health, and safety, Roberts argued. “What we face today is a handful of states that have chosen to enact labeling requirements on information that has nothing to do with health, safety, or nutrition,” he said, calling those state laws a “wrecking ball” for the food supply.

The Roberts bill would have set a 2-year window for at least 70% of foodmakers to join the industry-led SmartLabel system. Long touted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the program labels products with smartphone-scannable QR barcodes leading to a page with more information on the food. USDA would have to set up a mandatory labeling system if participation failed to hit 70% in 2 years.

Democrats are pushing an alternative measure, floated by Senator Jeff Merkley (D–OR). The measure, S. 2621, would offer foodmakers a menu of options for identifying GMOs in their products. Democrats who support the bill are stressing that it would let consumers know what GMOs are in foods without requiring labels that could be seen as stigmatizing biotechnology.

Senator Jon Tester (D–MT), an organic farmer and co-sponsor of Merkley’s legislation, criticized the Roberts bill’s voluntary standards as “no standards at all” on the Senate floor. “If you think this is giving the consumer a right to know what's in their food, you're wrong. This is a game,” Tester said on 15 March. (Tester, environmentalists, and food activists have dubbed the GOP bills the “Denying Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act.)

Roberts didn’t rule out the idea of continuing to work with Democrats to reach a workable compromise, and at least one Democrat, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, is hoping to bridge the divide, AgriPulse reports. In the meantime, Roberts called on opponents of his bill to put their own measures forward for votes and offer concessions of their own. “I have been flexible and have compromised,” Roberts said in a statement. “Simply put, if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same.”