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The US Senate yesterday failed to pass a bill that would have prevented individual states from mandating the inclusion of information about the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the labels of food products. The bill also would have allowed for the establishment of voluntary labeling standards at the federal level that would have superseded state laws.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), only garnered 48 votes; Senate rules require that 60 votes are needed for passage.

The bill had been fast-tracked in order to head off a Vermont labeling law that goes into effect on July 1.

The New York Times writes that "many food companies have already gotten approval for the language they will use on packaging there, but they worry that other states will pass similar laws, creating a patchwork of requirements that will add to the cost of compliance. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws requiring labeling, but the measures are contingent on bordering states’ adopting similar requirements ... Many companies have already begun labeling their products, even those that contributed money to the campaign to fight labeling. And the Non-GMO Project, the oldest of the groups that certify products to be free of genetically altered ingredients, has its seal on 34,774 products."

The House of Representatives has passed a similar bill, but the lack of a Senate bill means there is no chance for federal legislation unless the Senate can find a compromise position that generates enough support.

The Times writes that "the failure was a defeat for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the major food and biotech companies that are its members, which have spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting labeling requirements."

GMA CEO Pamela Bailey said in a prepared statement that, "despite today’s vote, there continues to be a strong bipartisan consensus to protect American consumers from the increased food costs and confusion of a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws."

Leslie Sarasin, president/CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), released a prepared statement that said, in part: "“Today, in spite of weeks and weeks of talks among leaders on both the majority and minority sides of the Senate, as well as thousands and thousands of letters, emails, calls and personal visits from leaders in the grocery industry urging that a solution be found, 60 Senators were not willing to coalesce around a single approach that could achieve 60 votes.

“The real loss is for our grocery customers who are accustomed to enjoying low prices and an abundant availability of products due to tremendous advances of U.S. agriculture and the historical standard in the U.S. that requirements for food labeling be consistent and limited to issues related to health and safety. We know a patchwork system will drive up costs; we will monitor closely to determine the impact."

Peter Larkin, president/CEO of the National Grocers Association (NGA), said, “NGA appreciates Chairman Pat Roberts’ efforts to implement a federal legislative solution to address the patchwork of state labeling laws for foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. We believe that a uniform standard that preempts state labeling laws strikes the right legislative balance to provide consumers with access to information that is consistent and transparent.  While we are disappointed that the Senate was unable to invoke cloture on this important bill, we will continue to look to a path forward for a solution.”
KC's View:
I continue to believe that, while I am personally agnostic on the subject of GMOs, consumers ought to be able to know what is in the foods they eat ... and that transparency trumps every other consideration. (I think "trumps" may be a verb I'll have to start avoiding...) Information is not condemnation, and the food industry could actually turn this into a learning opportunity, helping people understand why GMOs have value.

But ... it may be that the food industry is making the SeaWorld mistake. They're losing control of the narrative. They're making the mistake of believing that it is all about the science, when this debate really is all about the information. As persuasive as some of the opposing arguments are, it almost doesn't matter anymore.

Let's be clear. It isn't so much that these food industry interests don't want state-by-state labels as much as they don't want mandated labeling at all. And they can talk about the high costs of labeling, but that strikes me as a non-starter - if manufacturers discovered that sodium would help people be taller, thinner and more attractive, you can be damned sure that they'd figure out a way to say so on their labels virtually overnight, and products wouldn't cost a penny more because of it.

Again, they've lost control of the story. I'm sure the fight isn't over, and that the food industry will continue making the argument and spending money in the fight against transparency. But I'm not sure it is going to work.