Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked a controversial piece of legislation aimed at overturning and preempting state laws for labeling foods made with genetically modified ingredients. The Senate passed the bill without going through committee or debate, and then the House okayed it without changing a word. Now comes confirmation from the White House that President Obama has signed the legislation into law.
The law, S. 764 (read below for the bizarre history of this particular shell of a bill), doesn’t just overturn existing state labeling laws in Vermont and elsewhere — even though companies like Campbell Soup, Mars Inc., PepsiCo, Nestlé, and General Mills have already started labeling their products nationwide. It also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to eventually — at some point in two to three years — come up with a national labeling standard.
However, that standard could be incredibly weak and provide virtually no information to consumers, argue opponents of the law.
Food producers would not actually need to disclose GE ingredients on their packaging. Instead, they would be allowed to simply print a website address where customers could get more information. The least transparent option involves the use of barcodes that must be scanned to take the shopper to that website.
The FDA warned the authors of this bill — a pair of senators who have received more than $2.1 million from agribusiness donors for this election cycle alone — that text of the bill seemed to open up several loopholes, allowing for certain ingredients to avoid the GMO label.
For example, the law says food products receiving these labels must contain “genetic material.” By the FDA’s reckoning, that would seem to exempt products like oils, starches, and purified proteins even if they were sourced from GE crops.
The law also says that an item is only to be labeled as genetically modified if the modification could not have occurred through “conventional breeding.” The FDA raised concerns that the lack of specificity in the language could open this term up to an overly generous reading.
How A Bill Becomes A Law… when you don’t want anyone to debate it:
As we’ve done our best to explain before, S. 764 began life as “A bill to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act” and still technically carries that name.
That original bill, which had nothing to do with food labeling, was initially passed by the Senate, but since it never made it any further, Sen. McConnell was able to use the husk of the Sea Grant College bill as a way to expedite later bills he felt deserved to be on the fast track.
First, he hollowed out S. 764 and replaced it with a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Then that text was gutted and replaced with the first attempt at outlawing state-level GMO labeling laws by creating a voluntary national labeling standard.
When that bill failed — and with the July 1 launch of the Vermont labels approaching — two of the Senate’s biggest recipients of agribusiness money, Sen. Pat Roberts (KS) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) rushed out a “compromise” bill that would eventually create a national standard while outlawing any state-level labeling rules (unless they agree exactly with the national standard, which would make them redundant anyway).
Because McConnell fast-tracked that bill, it never saw a day in committee, where there would have been hearings involving stakeholders, followed by proposed amendments. Instead, it went straight to the Senate floor, where members from both sides of the political spectrum okayed it with minimal consideration.