Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), On GE Labeling, A Consumer’s Right To Know, And The Senate’s Own “Dark Act”

I want to set the record straight.  Contrary to the remarks of the Senate Majority Leader yesterday, Vermont has not recently passed a GE food labeling law.  Let’s be clear and accurate in our words in this chamber.  It was in May 2014 – nearly two years ago – that, after two years of debate and more than 50 committee hearings featuring testimony from more than 130 representatives on all sides of the issue, Vermont’s Governor signed into law a disclosure requirement for genetically engineered ingredients in foods.  Now, after one hearing five months ago tangentially related to the issue, without any open debate on the floor, the Republican leadership has decided that it knows better than Vermont.  Today we are being asked to tell Vermonters – and constituents in other states with similar laws – that their opinion, their views, and their own legislative processes simply doesn’t matter.  Today, we are being asked to tell consumers that their right to know isn’t, frankly, theirs at all.

I hear from Vermonters regularly – and with growing frequency – who are proud of Vermont’s Act 120 – a law that simply requires food manufacturers to disclose when the ingredients they use are genetically engineered.  Vermonters are concerned – some even outraged – that the United States Congress is seeking to roll back their right to know what is in the food that they give their families.  Make no mistake: Vermont isn’t the only state whose laws are under attack. We’re just the state with the fastest approaching deadline for implementation.  The bill we consider today is a hasty reaction to a two-year old law set to finally take effect.  And instead of protecting consumers, this bill seeks to continue the status quo and shield the public from critical information, preempt the public’s access to information that they seek about the foods they consume. 

Vermont’s law, and others like it around the country, are not an attack on biotechnology.  Vermont’s law, and others like it, merely require factual labeling intended to inform consumers.  Producers of food with GE products have nothing to hide.  The billion dollar iconic brand Campbell’s, which complies with similar laws in other countries, is already taking steps to label their products.  Campbell’s is not the only company ready to label. Our Ranking Member on the Agriculture Committee, Senator Stabenow, has had commitments from many other CEOs in the food industry that they are ready and able to move ahead with labeling and a national disclosure.  An asterisk, a symbol, a factual notation on a product label is not what will send our economy into a tailspin or cause food prices to spiral out of control, as some have said. 

Again, let’s set the record straight.  I have heard some on the floor of this chamber argue that Vermont’s labeling law will cost consumers an average of $1000 more per year in food purchases.  What those who make this argument don’t say is that this cost estimate – which came from a study funded by the Corn Refiners Association – is based on every food manufacturer in the United States eliminating GE ingredients from their food.  That is not what Vermont’s law requires and that is not what anyone is asking companies or farmers to do.  Vermont’s law requires a simple label to inform consumers that products contain GE ingredients.  At a time when too much of the national discourse is hyperbolic at best, let’s speak in truths here in this chamber: GE labeling should be the least of our woes.

The bill before us today is also an attack on another Vermont law – this one more than a decade old, and similar to a law on the books in Virginia – the genetically engineered seed labeling law.  Farmers in both Vermont and Virginia have complied with this law, and those selling seed to those states have done so as well.  Why the need to, again, preempt state laws, already in place, and with which companies are already complying?

At its heart, GE labeling is about disclosure – giving consumers more information, more choices, and more control over what they feed themselves and their families.  When we hide information from consumers, we eliminate a measure of accountability for producers and marketers.  In Vermont, farmers, producers and marketers are proud to showcase not just the quality of their products, but the methods with which they are produced.  It’s a business method we should be replicating across the country, not thwarting by legislative fiat.

I am a proud cosponsor of Senator Merkley’s bill to provide for a strong national disclosure standard that would give manufacturers a variety of options to disclose the presence of GE ingredients in their food.  I am equally grateful to Senator Stabenow, who has fought hard to negotiate a pathway toward a national disclosure standard.  Until we get there, however, we should not move forward with this bill, without an open, full, and responsible debate.

I cannot – I will not – support any bill that takes away the right of Vermont or any state to legislate in a way that advances consumer awareness.  If we do not want a patchwork of state disclosure laws, then let’s move in a direction of setting a national mandatory standard, not away from the public’s right to know.

This week – Sunshine Week – I hope the Senate will reject efforts to thwart public awareness, and will oppose advancing this hastily crafted legislation.

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