The Senate Agriculture Committee voted 14 to 6 on Tuesday to advance the bill to ban state labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients and to set up a national voluntary labeling system.
The bill, written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has strong support from most agricultural groups and most of the food-processing industry, but it faces strong opposition from groups that oppose biotechnology.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota joined with the Republicans in supporting the measure.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she could not support anything but a mandatory labeling measure, and this bill’s labeling program is not mandatory.
In an impassioned statement, Klobuchar said she would vote to advance the bill because a patchwork of state laws will not work and that she believes in science.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke against the bill, saying it would stop Vermont’s labeling law from going into effect. But Klobuchar noted that the Vermont law exempts dairy, the state’s major agricultural product, but Connecticut and Maine do not.
Congress is under pressure to act on biotech labeling before the Vermont law goes into effect on July 1.
Roberts thanked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for his help on the bill so far. Roberts also said he believes that President Barack Obama would sign the bill.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food — an industry group created specifically to support legislation such as Roberts’ bill — “expressed confidence today that victory is within reach” after the committee vote. The group said the bill would protect the U.S. food supply by preventing a costly state-by-state patchwork of labeling mandates.
“We couldn’t be happier with today’s vote and have full confidence that the full Senate will soon pass this legislation. We see no major road bumps that will slow the momentum at our backs,” said Claire Parker, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. “The House and Senate Agriculture Committees, as well as the full House of Representatives, have now supported a uniform, national labeling standard in bipartisan fashion. We have every reason to believe the full Senate will soon do so as well and a bill will be on the president’s desk within weeks.”
Opponents call Roberts’ bill “the Dark Act,” arguing it would restrict transparency in the food industry. Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, also chairs the group Just Label It. He called the bill “anti-consumer,” noting it would not only block states from setting up labels, but also make it harder for companies to develop their own labeling initiatives.
“Just Label It calls on the Senate to reject the DARK Act and instead urges Senators to support proposals that give consumers the right to know what’s in their food — a right already held by consumers in 64 nations,” Hirshberg said. “I applaud Senator Debbie Stabenow and other Democrats for standing with consumers and voting against the DARK Act.”