07.07.16

Full Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Senate’s Hasty Attempt To Preempt State Laws And Thwart A Consumer’s Right To Know

It has been just two weeks since negotiators released what can only be called a farce of a proposal to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Less than a week after it was released – without any Committee action, any testimony or recorded feedback from proponents or opponents – the Senate Majority Leader filed cloture on a privileged vehicle to fast-track the bill.

Gone are the promises of regular order.  Gone are the pledges of the open amendment process.  Instead, the Senate will now consider whether to preempt carefully considered and long-debated state laws that protect and enforce consumers’ right to know.

Make no mistake: Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GE labeling law is what is under attack here.  Vermonters’ carefully debated law is the catalyst that has driven millions of lobbying dollars to the doors of the United States Senate.  What this bill does not reflect is that nine out of ten consumers support a mandatory GE label on their food products. What this bill does not reflect is that 64 countries around the world mandate GE labeling.  This bill does not benefit from a thorough, open, constructive debate.  Consumers want a simple, easy to read label.  Instead, this concoction of a so-called “deal” would offer them a complicated Scavenger Hunt.

I was here in March when the Senate voted, convincingly, to reject the DARK Act.  This proposal before us today is a rebooted DARK Act.  It makes modest improvements, but falls far short of the disclosure that consumers demand and Vermonters have required.  Once again, their objective is not to honor and empower consumers’ right to know, but to derail state laws that do.  And to get by with as little consumer transparency as possible.

In this shortened period of debate, I hope to create for the Record what the Agriculture Committee has not: the shortcomings of this proposal, and the ways in which it should – and could – be improved.

Definition Uncertainty: I’ll first discuss the uncertainty the definition in this bill creates.  We have heard repeatedly these past two weeks both worry and apprehension that the legislation before the Senate would actually exclude virtually all the GE products that are now on the market. This concern stems from the very narrow scope of the definition in this bill. This definition excludes any foods that do not actually contain the genetic material of a GE crop. So what does this mean in practice?  This definition would exclude a wide variety of highly processed foods, from soybean oil to corn oil, corn syrup to sugar beets, and an array of other products that do not possess the actual genetic material after they have been processed.

Now, the sponsors of this bill tell us, no, no, no – we have it all wrong. They say that our analysis and interpretation of the legislation is incorrect. They say to trust them.  They say this bill gives USDA broad authority to label GE products.  They point to a letter from USDA last week – and remind us that USDA would be the only agency with authority to implement and enforce the GE labeling rules. In that letter, USDA said that the bill as currently drafted would include all traditional gene modification products which have come through the USDA approval process, such as GE corn, soybeans, sugar, and canola products on the market today, as well as products developed using gene editing techniques.

So yes, on the surface, this bill appears to give USDA broad authority to develop a label for GE products. However, with the swift speed with which the proponents of this bill have moved, with no Committee process, no debate or amendment process, we will not be able to ensure the language in this bill does exactly what they say that it does. Just take their word for it.  The language and definition for a bioengineered food for this new label – and let me quote directly from the bill here – is a food that “contains genetic materials that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques.” Well let me interpret that for Vermonters and consumers across the country.  That means that if the food does not have genetic material in it, then it is not considered bioengineered under this bill. So even with the assurances from USDA last week, a simple study of this definition says that those foods that are highly processed and no longer have the modified genetic materials would not fall under this new label.

The definition also goes on to say that a bioengineered food is one that – and again, let me quote directly from the bill – “for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” This raises more red flags because many of the genes that have been modified or introduced do occur in nature, just not in the particular crop the gene has been added to. They might occur naturally – in frogs, say – but not in our crops.

We have heard countless questions asking: Well, would it apply to this crop, or is it their intention that this other variety would have to be labeled if the gene being introduced occurs in nature? USDA says yes today, but will it say yes tomorrow?  If you look at this bill, there is no clear-cut answer. We have seen with the Vermont labeling law, where the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association took the State of Vermont to court to challenge its label, claiming it infringed on the Association’s freedom of speech, that such details matter.  We know that the details of this bill are very important if we are going to ensure that it will hold up through the complicated regulatory process and in court, where surely a farm group or food manufacturer will challenge this law.

If the sponsors of this bill would allow us to improve this definition and clarify what is covered, there would be a lot less concern and heartburn, and it could help to shed light on the true congressional intent of this proposal. That is why I have filed an amendment to strengthen the definition in this bill, and to bring it more in line with what we have seen in other countries, where many of these same food manufacturers are labeling already for their export markets.

GE Fish:  Moving on to genetically engineered fish.  Another point the sponsors of this bill have tried to refute is how this bill treats genetically engineered salmon, potentially exempting such salmon from labeling. Again, the sponsors say we have it all wrong – that this bill would require the labeling of GE salmon and will not affect the FDA’s authority to require a label under the agency’s existing authority.

However, at issue is that this bill preempts more than just Vermont’s Act 120 on GE labeling. It also blocks laws like Vermont’s seed labeling law and Alaska’s fish labeling law, which requires that any GE fish in the state of Alaska bear a simple label to let consumers know. The salmon industry is vitally important to Alaska, and that is why the Alaskan legislature passed their fish labeling law a decade ago.

And what do we hear again from the bill’s sponsors?  I’ll tell you:  They say don’t worry! The FDA could still require GE labels for salmon. But we all know how the FDA has dragged its heels already in responding to concerns from Congress on the labeling of genetically engineered fish. Just last year, the Omnibus Appropriations Bill directed the FDA to provide guidelines for the labeling of a fish as genetically engineered before the approval of a new genetically engineered salmon.

By preempting Alaska’s law, the Senate will tell the people of that great state that folks here in Washington know best. Even though you have a state law in place today to require this label, a law you have had on the books for a decade, Congress is going to preempt your state law and give USDA another two or three years before completing their labeling regulations.  In the meantime, not your state, or any state, may have a law in place to ensure this label. That is not fair to the seafood industry in Alaska or to consumers who are looking for this information. That is why I have offered an amendment to grandfather in those state laws that were enacted before January 1, 2016. We took this same step in the recent Toxic Substances Control Act reform bill. States that had already enacted strong chemical safety laws were able to continue implementing them. We should be able to do the same with this labeling law today.  Doing so would ensure there would be no “patchwork” we have been warned about, and would let existing laws to stay on the books.

Enforcement/Penalties: On another matter, the sponsors of this proposal took careful steps to ensure that there are no teeth in this bill for any enforcement by the USDA. They specifically spell out in the bill that there is no authority for the USDA to recall products found to be improperly labeled under the requirements in the bill for GE foods. This bill is also void of any fines or punishments for violators, and there is no compliance deadline for companies.  How, with a straight face, can we call this a mandatory label?

The sponsors tell us again:  Don’t worry – there is enough “strong enforcement authority through several mechanisms in the bill.” First, they assert that since USDA has been given the authority to audit any company that mislabels a food product or does not otherwise comply with the GMO disclosure requirements, it will allow them to “hold them publicly accountable.” They point out that state and federal consumer protection laws are preserved in this bill, and that the FDA retains its existing authority to regulate “truthful and misleading” claims on the labels.

Now, that is a confusing point since the proponents of this bill have just told us that USDA was the only agency with authority to implement and enforce the GE labeling rules. So how is it that the FDA can still regulate “truthful and misleading” claims?  Are we to then believe that the FDA will use its authority to enforce these labels that actually comply with a USDA requirement? Perhaps if we could clarify that issue in this bill it would help to set the record straight when it comes to congressional intent and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. But, again, no. We will be blocked from offering any amendments to this bill to clear up this confusion and to ensure that the FDA can use their residual authority in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s Section 403, which covers truthful and misleading labels.

To go from a state law that has some teeth and enforcement capability as we have in Vermont, to a federal standard with no penalties, recall opportunity, or other ways to enforce this new labeling requirement, is alarming. The proponents point out that states have the ability to enact an identical state GMO labeling law and can provide additional enforcement authority if desired.

So first they want to take away strong meaningful state laws on labeling. Then they tell those states they can pass something identical to the federal law, as weak as you may think it is, and enforce it on behalf of USDA.  All this because Congress appears too busy bending to the whims and interests of powerful interests to include any meaningful enforcement mechanisms in this bill.  

The sponsors of this bill also tell us that they feel that “public sentiment” will be enough to get these companies to comply and just do the right thing. Will our consumers have to be the cops on the beat to go after these companies? When these families are already having a tough enough time trying to squeeze every minute out of their days, now they will police these multi-million dollar companies to make sure they comply? That is highly unlikely, and it is patently unfair.

International Labeling Laws:  Of course then there is the matter of international labeling laws.  Although some groups and members of the Senate try to make it appear that what Vermont has done is completely novel, the fact is that labeling laws for GE crops exist in 64 other countries today. Certainly they are not all identical, but I will tell you one thing: the definition for bioengineered food used in this bill is unlike any other in the rest of the world.

On this point, we hear from the proponents of this bill that among the 64 countries who require labeling of GMO foods, there is no consistently used definition of biotechnology or consistent way that this is applied to foods. In fact, they highlight that some of our major trading partners exclude some of the very products that they believe this bill provides authority to USDA to label.

The fact is that consumers want the right to know for many varied reasons. For some, the question is a religious point.  For others they want to know the extent to which GE crops may increase herbicide use, not just the presence of the genetic materials in the food. That is why I have filed an amendment to strengthen the definition for the foods that must be labeled under this bill. My amendment is based on the United Nations’ Codex, an intergovernmental body with more than 180 members, established by the framework of the Joint Food Standards Programme established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. A broader definition, as I have proposed, will also allow for this new label and USDA to keep up with modern science and the rapidly changing pace of gene modifications we are seeing developed and our researchers working on today. 

This bill should not be so narrowly drafted that it ties USDA’s hands and ignores the fact that there are dramatic advancements in biotechnology every day. Ten years ago, it would have been hard to have predicted the scientific innovations in today’s world, and who knows what developments we will see in the next 10 years. This bill should be drafted so that we ensure that USDA has sufficient authority to make these determinations in the future, without Congress needing to update this authorization every time there is a new scientific advancement in biotechnology.

Patchwork:  And then there is the so-called “patchwork.” I have heard from the proponents of this bill that their efforts are to prevent a patchwork of different state labeling laws.  They claim that the existing state laws will cause confusion for consumers and food companies.  But what they fail to explain is that we do not have a patchwork of state laws today. What every member of the Senate should know is that Vermont is the only state that has a broad labeling law in place and in effect today. Maine and Connecticut’s laws have yet to take effect due to trigger clauses in those laws. Even if they were to take effect, these three states have worked in tandem and all require that the same language – “Produced with Genetic Engineering” – appear on the package.

In Vermont, our Attorney General was given the authority to make amendments and changes to the state’s labeling standard to ensure it is in line with other state standards to prevent consumer or industry confusion. So we do not have this fictional “patchwork” that some have claimed and used as reason to act immediately, without thorough debate and without opportunity for improvement. That is why I have filed another amendment to grandfather existing state laws for labeling, whether it be for seeds, GE salmon and Franken-fish, or GE foods.

Given the mounting unanswered questions and legal ambiguity that surrounds this bill, I cannot fathom why the Senate is intent to fast-track it. Rather than going through any sort of orderly Committee process, with hearings and markup, its sponsors have sought to use procedural tactics to avert a lengthy, controversial debate.  It is in part why there was commotion and confusion last week when the Senate held a rare roll call vote on the motion to lay before the Senate a message from the House to accompany a bill. The Senate Library and the Congressional Research Service had to hunt back to an example from 1976 that is cited in Riddick’s Senate Procedure for when the Senate had to have such a vote.

This is a complex issue, one that the Senate should consider deliberately, with a full and open debate of reasonable, germane, and relevant amendments.  Only that process would ensure that we truly have a mandatory federal label that does encompass the GE foods in the marketplace today and future advancements in biotechnology.

Amendments

Again, I am discouraged that Senators – Senators like me who have the benefit of their states creating a long record to support effective, mandatory GE labeling – have been cut out of the process in crafting this proposal.  That is why I have nonetheless joined other Senators, including Senators Merkley, Sanders, Tester, Blumenthal, Franken, and Murkowski, in filing amendments for consideration.  I’d like to take a moment to explain to the Senate – and for the record – just how modest and reasonable some of these amendments are.  I have already mentioned a few.

First, I have filed a series of amendments to address serious flaws in this proposal’s use of electronic or digital codes.  I am a proud supporter of Senator Merkley’s legislation, long-pending in the Senate, to require a mandatory, on-package label of some kind to identify genetically engineered food for consumers.  This proposal includes among its options digital codes, or, QR codes for those versed in the lingo.  They are these black and white boxes here [REFERENCE FLOOR CHART].  The idea is a consumer takes their smart phone, scans the code, the Internet takes them to a page, where they can then scroll to find the information they seek.  I don’t know if many of you in this chamber have been to Vermont.  If you haven’t, you should.  It’s beautiful, especially this time of the year.  It is also rural.  We still face internet challenges.  More than that, consumers should not be forced to scan the codes of 30 items in their shopping basket, simply to learn if they include GE ingredients.  What was once a quick trip to the market for milk and bread will turn into a two hour ordeal.  And that is if you can access the internet in the store.  I have filed an amendment to strike the use of these so-called QR codes as a means of labeling.

While this bill requires the Department of Agriculture to study the potential challenges to consumer access, it does nothing to assess consumer awareness.  One of my amendments would expand this study.  Another amendment would require that if such a study determines that consumers will not have sufficient access to information via electronic or other digital codes, the Secretary of Agriculture will require only on-package disclosure.  Another amendment I have filed would simply require the language accompanying an electronic or digital code to say “GE information”, instead of simply “food information.”  Again, look at this chart .  What harm would there be in giving consumers more descriptive and direct information?

Another amendment that I have filed would strike this proposal’s effort to preempt Vermont’s longstanding seed law.  On the books since 2004 and supported by organic farmers and hobby gardeners alike, there’s no need for this bill to go so far as to preempt this longstanding law that gives farmers more information about what they are buying.

Like others, I have filed an amendment to strengthen the definition of bioengineering and to strengthen consumer privacy with in the bill’s requirements.  I have an amendment to match the amount of GE food required to trigger a label to the 0.9 percent required in Vermont’s Act 120, and other international labeling standards.

And, importantly, I have filed an amendment to grandfather in Vermont’s Act 120, and any other similar labeling laws enacted before January 1, 2016.  The bill before us throws away the work of Vermont’s legislature.  Rather than treat the Vermont law – the first-in-the-nation GE labeling law – as the gold standard and the floor for any national law, instead of using Vermont’s law as an instructive starting point for a national label, we throw away the work of our legislature, the voices of my constituents.  Well, Vermonters won’t be silenced on this matter.  I am here to give voice to their views, even as the Senate muffles the progress our state has made in advancing a consumer’s right to know.

Voices from Vermont

Speaking of which, I have heard from hundreds of Vermonters about this so-called “mandatory” labeling bill.  For the benefit of the Senate’s short record on this issue, I would like to take this opportunity to share with the chamber some of the messages that I have received in the past few weeks. Many have shared their concerns about a digital or electronic disclosure option.

John from Fairlee, Vermont, wrote:

“I am incensed over the Senate proposal to allow companies to put a bar code style label on packaging that could be read by using a smart phone to determine GMO content. First, I don’t even have a smart phone and have no plans to buy one since we have no cell reception where I live. Even if stores have Wi-Fi, and I were willing to buy a smart phone, why should I have to go the extra step of connecting to a company’s website to determine if its product contains GMOs?”

Katharine from Brattleboro, Vermont, wrote:

“I’m one of the many people who cannot afford a cell phone. The federal proposal for GMO labels that requires a cell phone would be useless to me and many others on fixed incomes, disability, etc. Please pass a federal law that doesn’t require a cell phone to access information. I deserve to know what I am consuming as much as people with extra money who can afford a cell. It just isn’t fair to the rest of us to keep us in the dark. I pay my bills and live frugally and responsibly. I do not use my money for entertainment or extras. But I do not deserve to be restricted from access to important information...”

She went on to say:

“Additionally, cell coverage in Vermont is, at best, poor. So even people with cell phones might not be able to access information…”

Maureen said:

“I do not have a smart phone, as is true for most older Americans, and should not have to buy one in order to find out if the food I buy is genetically modified. This is a dishonest attempt to pander to big industry at the citizens’ expense.”

Others, like Carl from Putney and Barbara from Hinesburg said:

“I don’t use a smart phone and a label I have to scan will do me no good. I doubt I would want to scan everything I looked at in the supermarket, in any case.”

And:

“The proposed ‘labeling law’ is in fact not a labeling law at all. As I understand it, the food producers would not need to disclose anything, just provide a phone number or website that consumers could use to find out whether the food is genetically modified.

Carl and Barbara went on to say:

“…to have a label that can be read only with a phone app is ridiculous. We personally do not have such a phone and will not obtain one because where we live reception is challenging.”

Hundreds of Vermonters even joined in sending me a letter that said:

“The bill requires the labeling of packaged foods containing GMOs in one of three ways: an electronic code that consumers can scan; USDA-developed symbol; or a label. The bill leaves it to manufacturers to decide which of the three methods they prefer.

Now guess which method Big Food will choose? I have no doubts that they will choose the electronic code that can only be read with a scanner. They know that few will want to do this and even fewer will be able to.”

Their letter continued:

“A recent national survey showed that only 16 percent of consumers have ever scanned a QR code for any purpose. Unless I want to take each item to the customer service desk in the grocery store, I must download a scanning app onto my smartphone – assuming I even own one! No matter which app I choose, it may take a few tries to actually scan the code properly. Then I will have to wait for the website to pop up on the screen, which could take a long time depending on your network coverage inside the store, after which I might have to sift through the company’s information to find the GMO information I am looking for.

“The QR code is hardly a label in any meaningful sense of the word. It adds a barrier between the consumer and the information he or she wants, and discriminates against those who do not own smartphones – which is half of people living in rural areas, 75 percent of those over 65, and half of those making less than $30,000 a year, This legislation discriminates against all these people and especially the poorest Americans.”

It is clear that the proposal before us today is driven more by the perspectives of powerful special interests, than by a commitment to honor consumers’ right to know or by a legitimate effort to make information available to all Americans.  Consumers are far from this deal’s highest priority. If they were, we would not be contemplating an electronic or digital disclosure method when many rural areas, including most of Vermont, face significant technological challenges. Not to mention that this digital disclosure would also discriminate against low income and elderly populations. 

I have also heard from a number of Vermont organizations, all with grievous concerns about the proposal before us today.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group wrote:

“VPIRG opposes the … proposal because it is a thinly veiled attempt to keep consumers in the dark about what is in their food. This proposal is nothing but a sham aimed at eliminating Vermont’s labeling law without replacing it with any meaningful federal standard.

“Vermont’s labeling law took effect on July 1st, and companies are already providing consumers with clear on-package labeling that allows them to make informed decisions about the food they are purchasing.”

They went on to say:

“Vermont’s law is not novel or unique. Over 90% of Americans support labeling genetically engineered foods, and these products are already labeled in more than 64 countries around the world.”

Others, like Rural Vermont, said:

“On behalf of the members of the Board of Directors of Rural Vermont, who are all working farmers, and our statewide membership of other farmers and their customers, I am writing to urge you to do everything you can to prevent passage of this bill that proposes to provide a national standard for the labeling of food that is genetically engineered. This bill does not meet the fundamental needs of the over 90% of Americans who want genetically engineered food products to be labeled.

“This bill is no better than its predecessors in the Senate or the bill passed by the House in 2015. The fact that the bill offers as a “label” the option for food producers to require customers to use so-called QR codes to access information about the content of the product they are considering purchasing is absurd and blatantly discriminatory. The use of a QR code as a “label” requires that the customer  A) Own a “smart” cell phone, B) Have the application required  to read the QR code installed on that phone, C) have adequate access to cellular service inside their grocery store (highly problematic, esp. in Vermont), and D) Have the time and patience to navigate the web site to which the QR code will direct them in order to find the information regarding the product they are holding in their hand - the content and transparency of which is still entirely determined by the food producer. Try suggesting this scenario to a busy mom with a couple of kids in tow and you are likely to be laughed, if not chased, out of the room.”

The Northeastern Organic Farming Association of Vermont wrote:

“Vermont’s GE food labeling law Act 120, which is in effect as of July 1, provides a more meaningful, enforceable, and consumer-friendly labeling framework than the current federal proposal. It should be allowed to stand.”

I heard directly from Ben & Jerry’s in which they wrote:

“We are incredibly proud of the ingredients we use and we couldn't be happier to tell our fans and consumer about them. That’s why we find it so hard to believe that there are food companies that do not want to disclose the ingredients they use. That they are fighting so hard to oppose what polls show 90% of American’s want, the ability to look at a food package and know whether or not the product contains GMO ingredients.”

And others have reached out as well, saying this from the League of Conservation Voters:

“Under the proposal, companies may disclose GMO content through a QR code, a digital code which requires a smart phone or other scanning device to decipher.  Those who do not have access to a smart phone -- more than 50% of rural and low income populations, and more than 65% of the elderly -- will have to rely upon scanners provided by another party to access information about GMO content.”

Other Vermonters have reached out to me to share their concerns about the right of states to legislate in a way that furthers the legitimate and significant interests of the state. They have reached out, urging me to reject this “deal” or any other bill that would prohibit states from requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods unless it is replaced by a strong mandatory national label.

Jennifer from Bethel, Vermont, said:

“I and many other Vermonters urge you to reject this bill, we want Vermont’s precedent-setting, mandatory labeling bill to go into effect, and for it not to be thwarted by efforts for a weaker, overriding federal program of voluntary, or QR-code based labeling, which would only let some consumers know what’s in their food some of the time.”

James wrote:

“We have worked too long and hard to have our efforts scrapped by politicians who know little or nothing about growing natural nutritional food.”

He continued to explain that he and his wife testified before the Vermont State Legislature in support of Act 120, Vermont’s GE labeling law.

Another Vermonter said that this bill, which would nullify Vermonters’ right to know what is in their food, and legally bar any other state from enacting such a law, is “an outrage.” Many others also reached out to express their concerns that this “deal” is really just an attempt to undermine Vermont’s law.

The overwhelming message that I have heard loud and clear from so many Vermonters is that they simply want to know what is in the food that they feed their families.

Leslie from Middlebury, Vermont, wrote:

“The people of Vermont have made their voices known. We want to know what is in the food we eat and feed our families.”

Eric from Strafford, Vermont, said:

“I strongly urge you to fight to defeat the GMO labeling agreement proposed by Senators Stabenow and Roberts. It would undermine the Vermont labeling law and fails to offer consumers the clarity they deserve about what’s in their food.

And others have reached out as well, saying:

“I am very disappointed that legislators in Washington are more interested in protecting the food industries than they are in providing information to the consumer. We consumers have a right to know what’s in our food, how it was produced, and its origins.”

And:

“We have the right to know what is in our food in order to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families.”

“People need to have the right to know the contents of their food, it is ludicrous to deny this information to the people of this nation.”

“Consumers have a right to know what is in their food. And providing consumers that information shouldn’t be left up to the manufacturer.”

“As a concerned consumer, I want the choices I make for my family to be completely informed.”

As well as: 

“Like most Americans, I simply want to know what’s in my food and how it was produced. That is why I support GMO labeling.”          

From the many letters that I have received from Vermonters since this “deal” was announced, there is one in particular that I would like to share in full:

Michael of Brookfield, Vermont, writes:

Dear Senator Leahy,

I have recently learned that Senators Roberts and Stabenow have proposed GMO labeling legislation. The proposed measure has numerous defects, and I urge you strongly to oppose it.

The bill allows the agency to set the thresholds so high as to render the labeling requirement practically toothless. It also contains a loophole that could exempt corn and soy, the two most widely grown GMO crops in the country. Further, the actual required labeling would not require any actual information about the food to be put on the label, but instead can direct consumers to a website that has the required information. This would require both a smart phone and in-store internet connectivity in order to make a point-of-sale purchasing decision, neither of which are universal, especially here in Vermont. It seems that the authors of the bill are trying to make it as hard as possible to learn about what’s in our food.

I can understand the desire to prevent numerous conflicting GMO labeling laws from being enacted at the state level, but this ill-conceived substitute should be rejected.

Sincerely,

Michael

I would hope members of this body will heed Michael’s advice.  I’m sure constituents in your own states feel the same way.

Protecting the Right to Know

The legislation before us today undermines the public’s right to know and preempts labeling requirements for genetically engineered (GE) ingredients in states. While it is true that the proposal makes modest improvements to the legislation that the Senate wisely rejected in March, the fact remains that this bill was hastily crafted solely in an effort to undermine Vermont’s GE labeling law that just took effect last Friday. And so I would like to recap some of these concerns.

I remain concerned that this legislation takes away the rights of Vermont, or any other state, to legislate in a way that advances public health and food safety, informs consumers about potential environmental effects, avoids consumer confusion, and protects religious traditions. Not only would this legislation preempt Vermont’s Act 120 GE disclosure requirement, but it would block other state laws like Alaska’s requirement to label all products containing genetically engineered fish and shell fish, and Vermont and Virginia’s laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seed or trans-genetic seed.

I remain concerned that the bill’s definition of bioengineered foods has been written so narrowly that it would allow some of the most common foods to go unlabeled. Whether this bill was drafted with the intent to exempt certain foods remains unclear. What is clear, is that the definition has created significant confusion, not just among consumers, but also in this very chamber and across Federal agencies. That is why we should be having a full debate and amendment process to allow for technical corrections and to ensure clarity.

I remain concerned that this bill allows for the use of electronic disclosure methods. In many rural parts of the country, including most of Vermont, we have significant technological challenges that make it nearly impossible for consumers to access the electronic or digital disclosure methods allowed in this bill. I do believe that by requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to complete a study on this issue, these difficulties unavoidably will be recognized. However, significant questions remain. If the Secretary finds, as I am sure will be the case, that additional disclosure options are required for rural areas, will the USDA be responsible for installing scanners in grocery stores? Or, are the proponents of this proposal going to put the burden on our retail establishments, large and small, to install costly digital scanners? A scannable code, or a 1-800 number, is not true disclosure.  It is a burden on consumers.  It creates an obstacle course from consumers.  It is the exact opposite of what we mean when we say, “Just Label It.”

I remain concerned that this proposal doesn’t truly support a consumer’s right to know. Consumers were an afterthought in the crafting of this “deal.” The prime motivation was to let large corporations get by with doing as little as possible. This bill’s lack of transparency is counterproductive. The more information that we seek to hide from consumers about how their food is grown and manufactured, the more unnecessary red flags we raise for them.  Our farmers and food producers should be proud to inform consumers about what they plant, how they grow it, the choices they make, and why. 

I also remain concerned that this proposal has absolutely no enforcement mechanism. I have trouble believing that public pressure will be enough to force these multi-million dollar corporations to comply.  This proposal makes consumers the cops on the beat, policing companies to provide information about the contents of their product.  Surely our nation’s families, who are busy squeezing every minute out of every day, will not have time to hold companies accountable in the court of public opinion.  We should not place this added burden on consumers who only want to know what they are feeding their families.

Since this proposal was unveiled, I have heard from many Vermonters who care deeply about this issue. Just last Friday, I joined several hundred Vermonters on the Statehouse lawn in Montpelier to celebrate Act 120 taking effect. I heard their voices loud and clear on this issue. The proposed “deal,” before us today, falls short and does not offer consumers what they need and what Vermont’s legislature had in mind when they passed Act 120: a simple, clearly written, on-package label.

Dozens of Vermonters have told me that they do not own smart phones or do not get cell phone service in their towns. Katharine, from Brattleboro, Vermont, wrote to me and said: “I’m one of the people who cannot afford a cell phone. … Please pass a federal law that doesn’t require a cell phone to access information. I deserve to know what I’m consuming, just as much as people with extra money who can afford a cell phone. It just isn’t fair to the rest of us to keep us in the dark.”

Katharine’s sentiments were echoed by Maureen, from Fairlee, Vermont, who said: “I do not have a smart phone, as is true for most older Americans, and I should not have to buy one in order to find out if the food I buy is genetically modified.”

Carl from Putney, Vermont also wrote to me, saying: “I don’t use a smart phone, and a label I have to scan will do me no good. I doubt I would want to scan everything I looked at in the supermarket, in any case.” And you know, Katherine, and Maureen, and Carl, and the hundreds of other Vermonters who I have heard from, are right. It is not fair, and it is exactly what these large corporations want: They want to hide information behind a QR code or a 1-800 number.

Americans want to make informed decisions for their families and with their limited grocery budgets. One Vermonter, Denis, said it well in his message to me: “The issue is simple: consumers deserve to know what they are consuming, including whether or not the ingredients are produced naturally or through genetic engineering, so they can make personal choices about what to purchase. GMO information needs to be clearly disclosed on the label as part of the nutrition and ingredient details.”

Lewis from Enosburg Falls also wrote to me about the importance of a consumer’s right to know. He said: “Everyone has the right to know what they are eating. Period. Vermont’s labeling law will not judge GMOs as good or bad, it will simply confirm their presence in any product. I want to make informed decisions about what is in the food my family and I eat, whether it’s salt, sugar, fat, or GMOs.”

The Vermont legislature debated this issue for years and held over 50 hearings on the subject with over 130 witnesses. Yet the U.S. Senate has failed to hold a single hearing on labeling to debate these issues and hear expert testimony. This back room deal made with the food industry has left too many gaping holes and questions that should be addressed before this bill is fast tracked through the Senate.

Is the Vermont law perfect in every way? No, I do not contend that it is. The state was blocked and preempted from requiring a label on products that contain meat. And I will be the first to point out that there are challenges with Vermont being out there on its own with a label, but what we need to replace it is a strong national label that has been thoroughly debated and any confusion over intent clarified.

This bill has been brought forward at this time simply to preempt Vermont’s GE labeling law that just took effect on July 1.  This, despite the fact that Vermont has a six month safe harbor or grace period until January 1, 2017. With six months left before Vermont’s grace period ends, why are we not taking the time to hold a hearing? Why are we not having a full debate and amendment process? Why are we not listening to consumers in Vermont and across the nation who simply want to know what is in the food they feed their families and how it was produced?

I hope other Senators will join me in rejecting these efforts to undermine the ability of states like Vermont, Alaska, Virginia, and others that choose to offer consumers and farmers purely factual, noncontroversial, commercial information that furthers the legitimate and substantial interests of the state. 

I cannot support this so-called compromise. It is a last minute attack on Vermont’s law, and on states’ right to set priorities at the state government level.  We should be moving in a direction that offers consumers more information and more choices, rather than hiding behind a toothless law that sets industry interests ahead of a consumer’s right to know.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Vermonters deserve better.  And so do all Americans.

# # # # #

 

 

 

 

 

Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693