WASHINGTON ― The Senate advanced a bill Wednesday that would set national labeling standards for genetically modified food ingredients, angering activists who showered the lawmakers with dollar bills during the vote.
The bill would override state labeling laws such as Vermont's, which requires companies to specify whether their products use genetically engineered ingredients. That law went into effect July 1.
Supporters of the Senate measure, which already passed the House, say the bill is needed so that consumers can have some consistency in labels and so that manufacturers don't have to navigate a patchwork of differing local laws, which they say would be expensive.
And they argue ― as more than 100 nobel laureates recently did ― that there is no evidence that GMOs are dangerous and significant evidence that they help alleviate malnutrition, disease and hunger.
But critics say the bill actually hides whether or not many foods contain GMOs, and they allege that it was written by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) at the behest of giant agricultural firms, such as Monsanto.
Indeed, several activists interrupted the vote and threw wads of dollars bills into the Senate chamber in Stabenow's direction, shouting that it was “Monsanto money.” One of those arrested identified herself as Alexis Baden-Mayer, the political director of the Organic Consumers Association.
“This is not how democracy works!” one of the protesters shouted after throwing the money, while a police officer tried to clamp a hand over her mouth.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who led opposition to the measure, said it was dubbed the “dark act” because it obfuscates genetically engineered ingredients and makes it harder for consumers to learn about them.
Because the bill defines GMO products only as ones that contain genetically engineered elements, it leaves out products that have the engineered genes removed in the manufacturing process, such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.
Also, specifically labeling GMO ingredients would be voluntary under the bill. Instead of a clear label, companies would only have to include a “quick response” computer code on GMO products that people could scan with a smartphone. The square, pixelated symbol would direct them to a website to find out if that product contained GMOs.
The third problem that opponents cite is that there are no enforcement mechanisms in the bill should firms neglect to even include GMO information online.
“What customers want in the United States of America, nine out of 10, is they want their food labeled,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who runs a family farm, said at a news conference before the vote. “So, what did the Senate do? We developed a Mickey Mouse QR label.”
He and other senators, including Vermont Sens. Bernie Sanders (I) and Pat Leahy (D), complained that not only did the bill obscure information about GMOs, but it was advancing without any hearings to let people examine the issues involved.
They argued that at least the topic should be debated more vigorously because at base consumers have a right to know what's in their food. Even if they are not concerned for safety, they ought to have the information to vote with their pocket books on what sorts of products and farming techniques they want to support.
“We're going to deny consumers, with this bill, the right to know what they're buying,” Tester said.
Senators can try to amend the measure, but it was unclear if leaders would allow those votes. Sixty-five of them voted to proceed with the bill, including Stabenow and 17 other Democrats. Five Republicans opposed it.
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