Opening Remarks Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Senate Agriculture Committee Business Meeting To Consider Draft GE Labeling Preemption Bill

It comes as no surprise, I am sure, that I will not support this bill.  This legislation undermines the public's right to know and preempts mandatory labels in states, replacing them with a paltry voluntary standard that already exists today under guidance from the FDA.  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.

There have been no Senate hearings on this legislation nor on the broader issue of labeling.  No expert witnesses have been called, yet today this committee is poised to preempt state laws like Vermont's, which was debated and discussed by our Legislature over a two-year period.  The Vermont Legislature held 52 committee hearings, and heard 136 presentations of testimony on both sides of the food labeling issue.  Vermont's 2004 seed labeling law that would be overturned by this bill, was the subject of more than a dozen and a half hearings with more than 40 witnesses representing every side of the issue.  Yet before considering today's bill, this Committee has not heard from a single farmer about this issue.

This bill has been brought forward at this time simply to preempt Vermont's GE labeling law before it takes effect in July.  I want to remind this Committee that Vermont has a six-month safe harbor or grace period until January 1, 2017.  I will continue to oppose any bill that 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.  We should be moving in a direction that offers consumers more information and more choices -- not less information and fewer choices.

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 should be proud to inform consumers about what they plant, how they grow it, the choices they make, and why.  This legislation moves production methods into the shadows and it gives agriculture a black eye.  The supporters of this bill demean biotechnology in agriculture by making it a controversial issue when it does not have to be.  A purely factual label does not give any impression that GE ingredients are unsafe; it simply informs the consumer.  But when you rush in panic, with no hearings or time for deliberation, to block consumers from gaining access to this information in even a single, small state like Vermont, you seem to be declaring to the world that GE producers have something to hide.

I hope other senators will join me in rejecting these efforts to undermine the ability of states like Alaska, Vermont, Virginia and others that choose to offer consumers and farmers purely factual, noncontroversial, commercial information that furthers the legitimate and substantial interests of the states.  States have rights, and in the case of Vermont and Alaska, our state legislatures have agreed that consumers have a right to know what they are buying.  Vermont's and Virginia's farmers have the right to know what seeds they are planting. 

Despite what we will hear time and again today, the sky is not falling.  Many will call for expedited action because they fear "catastrophic economic costs" should Vermont's law be implemented.  But consider that Vermont's total retail sales are only about two-tenths-of-one-percent of national retail sales.  Will labeling food in our small state really send shockwaves through the country?  There is no skull and cross bones on the front of the package, simply useful information.  Food producers will not have to label every product sold in this country, only the products that they choose to ship to Vermont. Vermont has heard from countless companies that are already working to add this disclosure to their products, from the iconic billion-dollar Campbell's brand, to regional grocery chains that have their own store brands, to small family owned businesses.  Can other companies not simply put a sticker on their boxes, or cans, or bags?  Beverage companies are able to comply with state can deposit laws.  Will the Senate go after the patchwork of those state laws next?

I'll tell you one thing: This legislation, rushed forward without even a hearing, is a solution looking for a non-existent problem.  It is a last minute attack on Vermont's law, and on Vermonters' right to set priorities at the state government level.

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