The U.S. Senate on Wednesday took the first step to pass legislation that would overturn Vermont's law that requires the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients. The proposed federal bill would prohibit individual states from enacting their own GMO labeling standards.
Backers of Vermont's GMO labeling law failed in their effort to block consideration of the new federal proposal.
This means the Senate is likely to vote on a plan that preempts any state GMO labeling law sometime in the next 10 days.
The new federal bill doesn't require food companies to label their products that contain GMO ingredients. Instead, it calls on the companies to put a bar code on the label of their products. Consumers could then access pertinent ingredient information by using a smart phone.
Companies could also make this information available to consumers through a toll free hotline.
Sen. Patrick Leahy says the proposal is a sham. And he argues that Vermont's labeling law is the best way to provide consumers with important information about their food.
"It doesn't say you can't buy it,” Leahy explained, “It just says you ought to know what you're getting. Just as we do if somebody has a gluten allergy or peanut allergy. You can look at it and know what it is."
And Leahy says it's wrong for Congress to preempt the right of an individual state to adopt tough labeling standards.
"The Senate wants to throw out the work Vermont has done … to say we know better,” Leahy said. “Instead of using Vermont's law as a floor they just want to throw this out entirely and create more confusion for consumers across the country."
Leahy is sponsoring an amendment that would preserve all state labeling laws that were enacted before January 1, 2016. But he says Senate leaders might block the consideration of any amendments when the bill comes up for a vote.
"Let's have this debate. You don't have time to do important things but you have time to do a lobbyist’s bidding,” Leahy said, “Well come on! We're going to say, have a debate.”
The first test of the federal labeling bill came on a vote Wednesday to proceed with debate. Sixty votes were needed and 65 senators voted in favor.
Sen. Bernie Sanders says complying with Vermont's new law isn't difficult. He noted that a number of big national food companies, including Kelloggs, General Mills, Mars and Campbell's Soups are now labeling their products.
"Companies all over this country, some of the largest companies in the nation, are already complying and guess what?” Sanders said, “These companies started labeling their GMO foods and the sky didn't fall. It was not a big deal for them."
And Sanders says the federal plan to ask consumers to retrieve ingredient information by using their smart phone is impractical.
“In the grocery store that my family shops the internet reception is not all that great,” Sanders said. “It would not benefit us and I suspect tens of other millions of consumers around this country."
If the new federal plan becomes law, it would affect the three states that have passed GMO labeling laws, Vermont, Connecticut and Maine, as well as roughly 30 other states that are considering this approach.