Statement on Labeling Genetically Engineered Ingredients

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Labeling Genetically Engineered Ingredients
Senate Floor

June 28, 2016

This week marks an historic moment in Vermont. This coming Friday, July 1, Vermont’s Act 120, the first-in-the-nation labeling law for genetically engineered (GE) foods, will take effect. Unfortunately for consumers everywhere, it could be a short-lived celebration. Late last week, a so-called “deal” was reached on a national mandatory labeling law. I have now had the chance to review this proposal closely. Vermonters have reviewed it closely. I can say this: It falls short.

This is an extremely complex issue – from how we define genetically engineered foods, to how we treat animal products; from the impact on the organics industry to how small businesses respond. The details matter. And that is why the Vermont Legislature spent two years debating it, with more than 50 committee hearings featuring testimony from more than 130 representatives on all sides of the issue. The Senate has not held a single hearing on labeling, and only one hearing on the issue of biotechnology, but none on the issue of labeling foods or seeds.

To be fair, the proposal unveiled last Thursday is an improvement over the legislation that the Senate rejected in March. That bill would continue the current status quo. It proposed a meaningless “volunteer-only” approach, a thinly veiled attempt to block Vermont’s labeling law and keep any other state from acting. This current proposal at least acknowledges that states like Vermont have acted in this area.

We heard from the organic industry, expressing reservations over how they might be treated under a federal GE labeling program. Some of those concerns have been addressed, and the proposal reinforces that the USDA Organic seal remains the gold standard.

The proposal follows what Vermont’s Act 120 does with respect to animal products and addresses the gap in the Vermont law for processed foods inspected by USDA.

The proposal also acknowledges, at long last, what I have been saying for the past year: that in many rural parts of this 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. By requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to complete a study on this issue, I believe these difficulties unavoidably will be recognized, and the Secretary should have the authority he needs to require additional disclosure options. I do hope, however, that the proponents of this proposal will not try to put the burden on our retail establishments to install costly digital scanners.

The proponents of this “deal” were sent back to the drawing board after we succeeded in derailing the earlier proposal on March 16. I was proud to lead Vermont’s efforts to prevent that bill from passing. While it is true that this new attempt is an improvement in several ways, it is clear that this revised plan is driven more by the perspectives of powerful special interests, than by a commitment to honor consumers’ right to know. Consumers’ right to know merits only grudging acceptance in this plan; consumers are far from this plan’s highest priority.

And so, while this proposal makes some positive, though modest, improvements, I remain deeply concerned that it will not offer transparency for consumers, transparency that many companies have already opted to provide.

Thanks to the citizen-led efforts in Vermont, we are seeing more and more consumer-friendly information easily accessible to shoppers. No scanning some code. No calling an 800 number. They simply flip the product over and see if the product has genetically engineered ingredients. We have seen countless pictures sent in by shoppers finding these labels. Labeling is neither complicated nor cost-prohibitive in practice.

To make matters worse, this bill has absolutely no enforcement mechanism. The negotiators of this proposal seem to think 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 families squeezing every minute out of every day will have time to hold companies accountable in the court of public opinion. We should not place this added burden on consumers seeking only to know what they are feeding their families.

At the end of the day, each of us have different reasons for wanting to know what is in our foods. The fact is that without labeling of GE foods, consumers cannot make informed choices. This purported “deal” does not go far enough to give consumers what they are asking for, a simple on-package label or symbol.

And of course, this bill does more than just block states from enacting GE food labeling laws like Vermont’s Act 120. It also blocks a longstanding seed labeling law in Vermont, one that Vermont’s organic farmers appreciate, as do conventional farmers and even backyard hobby gardeners. This is a law that has been on the books since 2004 and ensures clear, meaningful information for farmers to know exactly what they are buying.

Perhaps in a state like Kansas where the last Organic Farm Survey in 2014 counted only 83 organic farms, or in Michigan, where there were some 332 organic farms in a state that is 10 times the size of Vermont, having access to that seed information is not considered very useful or important to farmers. But in a state like Vermont, where our organic farming association assures me that we now have well over 600 organic farms, our seed labeling law is important. The industry has complied with it for the last twelve years. Yet with no hearings and no debate, this deal will block Vermont’s seed law and prevent any other state that sought to enact one as well.

As the Senate author of the national organic standards and labeling program, I continue to closely monitor and work to protect the high standards for the organic program that have given consumers’ confidence in the organic label, and that have given organic producers the strong, clear and meaningful standards that they have demanded. These clear rules have ensured the success of the program and have given all producers a level playing field. This extraordinarily successful program is the key reason that America’s organic sector continues its multi-billion-dollar growth and acceptance both here at home, and abroad, in the products we export. Labeling of genetically engineered products is an outgrowth of the organic movement. As a watchdog of that program, I simply cannot support this proposal.

Vermonters have a long tradition of leading the national debate, on issues crossing the spectrum. Vermonters stand for transparency and a consumer’s right to know. Vermonters want to make informed decisions for their families and with their limited grocery budgets. We acknowledge that powerful interests are allied against Vermont’s law and against the nation’s consumers. That has been a fact from the beginning. The proposal released last week does not respect the work that Vermont has painstakingly done in this space, and this Vermonter will not – cannot – support it. Vermonters deserve better. And so do all Americans.

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