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Senate Passage of GMO Bill Draws Mixed Response

Grocery industry groups welcomed the U.S. Senate’s passage of the GMO labeling bill introduced by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). If the federal legislation is passed by both houses of Congress, state laws such as the one that took effect in Vermont on July 1 would be pre-empted.

“The development of a single national GMO labeling standard is absolutely essential to avoid the consumer confusion that will emerge from a patchwork of differing state laws, conflicting definitions and divergent labeling criteria regarding biotechnology,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “The Roberts-Stabenow agreement will allow consumers the opportunity to receive accurate and accessible information they desire by offering the food industry an efficient, economical and orderly means of providing such information. We and our partners in the [food industry group] Coalition for Safe Affordable Food praise this important Senate action in support of this legislation and encourage the House’s expeditious passage of the bill next week.”

 “This legislation will help to ensure that the consumers our members serve on a daily basis have clear and consistent information on the food products that they purchase and consume nationwide,” noted Peter J. Larkin, president and CEO of the Arlington-based National Grocers Association (NGA), who also urged the House to vote on the bill.

“Advancing this legislation, with bipartisan support, is an important milestone towards bolstering consumer confidence while giving frozen food and beverage makers the certainty they require to meet the needs of America’s consumers,” said Alison Bodor, president and CEO of the McLean, Va.-based American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), while Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, noted: "The Senate language passed on a strong, bipartisan vote of 63-30 and provides much-needed clarity for the food and agriculture sector, as well as consumers. The bill puts the requirement for labeling on those companies that introduce these foods into the marketplace, which may reduce the pressure on companies to seek 'non-GMO' verified labeling. At the same time, the bill provides significant flexibility to companies with genetically engineered foods as to the manner of labeling, whether on package text, symbol or link to a website."

'Far From Perfect' Compromise

Other organizations highlighted the legislation’s shortcomings, even as some acknowledged its progress in certain respects.

“This bipartisan compromise, while far from perfect, takes steps toward transparency for the consumer around GMOs in food products and strengthens organic labeling protections,” read a statement from Food Policy Action, a Washington, D.C.-based group formed “to hold legislators accountable on votes that have an effect on food and farming,” according to its website. “Unfortunately, this bill falls short of a mandatory on-pack national disclosure standard, and ultimately Food Policy Action alerted Congress that it would negatively score votes on the bill.”

 “The GMO labeling legislation passed by the Senate...falls short of what consumers rightly expect – a simple at-a-glance GMO disclosure on the package,” contended Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Washington-based Just Label It and Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm. “It also contains ambiguities that could needlessly narrow the scope of biotechnologies covered and is vague on what GMO content levels require labeling and enforcement penalties for non-compliance. These weaknesses mean that the fight for national mandatory GMO transparency now shifts to USDA and to the marketplace, where companies should think twice before they remove GMO labels from their packages. Pro-GMO labeling efforts now need to focus on effective implementation that delivers what all consumers want and deserve.”

Added Hirshberg: "While we regret that Vermont’s landmark labeling bill will now be postponed, it is now certain that within a few years, every GMO food will carry an on-package disclosure.  Millions of consumers and hundreds of advocacy organizations have successfully moved America into the 21st century.”

Earlier this year, several major CPG companies, such as Campbell, General Mills and Mars, have already said they would disclose genetically modified ingredients on their product labels.

Despite his opposition to the bill, Hirshberg expressed gratitude to Stabenow “for her leadership in standing firmly in favor of a national, mandatory GMO disclosure system,” and also lauded Sens. Jeff Merkley, Barbara Boxer, Jon Tester, Pat Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy “for fighting to give Americans the same rights as consumers in 64 other nations.”

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