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 threat that has driven millions of lobbying dollars to the doors of the United States Senate.  What this bill does not consider is that nine out of ten consumers support a mandatory GE label on their food products.  What this bill does not recognize 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 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.

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...”

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.”

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.”

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. 

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.

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.

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 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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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