WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — A cloture vote to advance the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas failed on March 16. The vote was not close with 49 senators voting to deny cloture while 48 senators voted in favor. To secure cloture and advance the bill to a final vote, the measure would have required the support of 60 senators.
The measure before the Senate was similar but not identical to the bill approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry by a vote of 14 to six on March 1. Committee Democrats who voted in favor of advancing the bill at that time cautioned they would not vote for the bill on the Senate floor unless improvements were made addressing how consumers would be informed about whether individual food products or their ingredients were manufactured via bioengineering. The changes offered in the revised Roberts bill fell short of the improvements sought.
The bill as presented to the full Senate would have established a voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard and would have prevented states and other levels of government from establishing mandatory bioengineered food labeling requirements that were different from the national voluntary standard.
In order to make the bill more acceptable to senators searching for means to clearly indicate to consumers the presence of bioengineered ingredients in foods, the revised measure included provisions “providing an incentive for the marketplace to provide more information” about food products
The revised bill would have required “if a food is voluntarily labeled under this section through means of scannable images or codes or other similar technologies, the label clearly indicates to consumers that more information is available about the ingredients of the food; and the scannable image, code or similar technology provides direct access to information regarding whether the food is bioengineered or whether bioengineering was used in the development or production of the food.”
The revised bill held out the possibility of establishing a mandatory standard along the same lines of the voluntary standard in the event after three years there was not “substantial” industry participation in providing consumers access to information about food products under the voluntary standard.
Neither the voluntary nor possible mandatory standard would require text on a product label or packaging disclosing whether the product was manufactured by means of bioengineering.
If a mandatory standard were to be established, it would require a statement made on the food label or labeling “or means other than the label or labeling, including responses to consumer inquiries through call centers, the Internet, web sites, social media, scannable images or codes or similar technologies that would allow consumers to access the information” about the food product.
Roberts, following the cloture vote, said, “If we do not act, everyone loses. I have acted to provide a responsible, enforceable, scientific and proactive approach to arm consumers with the information they want to make informed choices about what to put on the dinner table.” Roberts said, “My approach to labeling acknowledges what many American consumers forget: our food is abundant, affordable and safe. We must continue our reliance on science and technology to ensure our continued prosperity. I remain at the ready to work on a solution to a critical problem that will face every American every day”.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee said on the floor in advance of the vote, “Unfortunately, the Roberts proposal is nothing more than the status quo for consumers who want information about the food they are purchasing. I believe that if the federal government is going to take away states’ rights, we have the obligation to create a national system of disclosure that provides information to consumers in an easily accessible way.”
Chip Bowling, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) president, said, “U.S. corn farmers are disappointed that, despite the clear demonstration of support from nearly 800 groups, the Senate failed to move this reasonable legislation forward. This legislation would have provided consumers with a greater amount of information in a consistent, clear manner. Farmers are committed to creating greater transparency in the food system, but we also need Congress to set clear, common sense guidelines that are based in science and keep food affordable for American families.
“We still see the possibility for a bipartisan agreement on this in the near future, and will continue working with Chairman Roberts and Sen. Stabenow to realize this possibility,” Bowling said. “The impending implementation of a patchwork of state labeling legislation will soon harm both the American families who grow food and those who buy it. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of the safety of this technology and the vital role it will play in meeting the growing need to feed a growing global population, on-pack labeling that would create confusion and stigmatize biotechnology serves only a small activist population at the expense of consumers.”
“We urge the Senate to stand with farmers and consumers, not political activists,” Bowling said. “We must continue working to solve this critical issue.”
Meanwhile, Vermont’s mandatory bioengineered food labeling bill is scheduled to take effect July 1.