Outside Influences

Another Skirmish in the Food-Labeling Fight

A Senate bill that blocks states from labeling GMO foods is moving forward, but the broader battle rages on.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
March 1, 2016, 8 p.m.

The Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee’s ap­prov­al Tues­day of a bill that would stop states from la­beling foods con­tain­ing ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms and re­quire the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment to set up a vol­un­tary la­beling pro­gram is a ma­jor vic­tory for the farm­ers, food com­pan­ies, and re­tail­ers that op­pose la­beling. But it is only a minor move in a much lar­ger battle over con­sumer re­ac­tion to the in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion of the food sup­ply.

Ge­net­ic­ally modi­fy­ing a plant or an­im­al by tak­ing a gene from one spe­cies and put­ting it in an­oth­er is con­tro­ver­sial. Sci­ent­ists say the food from this pro­cess is safe and should not re­quire a la­bel, while op­pon­ents, in­clud­ing the or­gan­ic food in­dustry, say con­sumers have the right to know what is in their food.

The bill, writ­ten by Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pat Roberts of Kan­sas, passed the com­mit­tee by a big mar­gin—14 to 6. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the com­mit­tee, voted against the Roberts bill and said she be­lieves fed­er­al la­beling should be man­dat­ory. But Stabenow said she be­lieves a bill can pass the Sen­ate. The House has passed its own meas­ure, but is ex­pec­ted to con­cur with the Sen­ate bill. Roberts said he be­lieves Pres­id­ent Obama would sign his bill.

The de­cision of three Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors—Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota—to join all the com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans in sup­port­ing the meas­ure came as a sur­prise.

But Klobuchar’s de­cision to be the Demo­crats’ spokes­wo­man on the bill was a shock. Klobuchar is re­garded as a lib­er­al with a base in Min­neapol­is, St. Paul, and Du­luth, but Min­nesota is also a big ag state, home to many food com­pan­ies as well as farms. Klobuchar said she would vote to ad­vance it be­cause of the costs that la­beling would im­pose on the eco­nomy, and be­cause of her be­lief in sci­ence. Klobuchar said she be­lieves in the con­sumers’ right to know but that con­sumers “have the right to know … what we are deal­ing with is a safe product.”

Klobuchar may have made her strongest ar­gu­ment when she noted that the Ver­mont la­beling law, which would go in­to ef­fect on Ju­ly 1, ex­empts dairy, the state’s biggest ag­ri­cul­tur­al product, but la­beling laws in neigh­bor­ing Maine and Con­necti­c­ut do not ex­empt dairy.

“We can­not have this patch­work of laws,” she said.

Klobuchar and Don­nelly are work­ing on a bill that would re­quire the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment to es­tab­lish a vol­un­tary na­tion­al bioen­gin­eer­ing food-la­beling stand­ard with­in one year.

But Heitkamp said she doesn’t know if the vol­un­tary stand­ard “is enough” and that the com­mit­tee would be wrong “if we think this de­bate is over after we take this vote and go to the [Sen­ate] floor.”

Heitkamp noted that polls show 90 per­cent of North Dakotans want GMO la­beling. “We can say they don’t know what they are talk­ing about, but I usu­ally don’t say that to my con­stitu­ents,” she said.

The prob­lem, Heitkamp ad­ded, is that “we use sci­entif­ic stud­ies and all Amer­ic­ans hear is ‘blah, blah, blah.’” Gro­cery com­pan­ies con­tin­ue to re­spond to con­sumer de­mands for more in­form­a­tion, she said.

Klobuchar, Heitkamp, and Stabenow all have a heightened in­terest in ge­net­ic modi­fic­a­tion be­cause they rep­res­ent sug­ar-beet grow­ers who are us­ing ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied seed. Beet sug­ar de­liv­er­ies are down 9.5 per­cent in the last three months, while cane sug­ar sales have ris­en as Her­shey’s and oth­er com­pan­ies shift to cane sug­ar, which is not ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied.

Last week, at the In­ter­na­tion­al Sweeten­er Col­loqui­um, a meet­ing of in­dus­tri­al sug­ar users, in Aven­tura, Flor­ida, Duane Grant, a sug­ar-beet grow­er from Idaho, pleaded with the rep­res­ent­at­ives of branded food com­pan­ies to tell con­sumers that ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied sug­ar beets are bet­ter for the en­vir­on­ment be­cause they use less wa­ter and pesti­cides and pro­duce high­er yields.

The cane com­pan­ies are now quite will­ing to ex­ploit what they be­lieve con­sumers see as pur­ity, even though sci­ent­ists say there is no dif­fer­ence between beet and cane sug­ar. C&H, a cane sug­ar brand in Cali­for­nia, has be­gun mar­ket­ing its sug­ar as “Non-GMO” and free of beet sug­ar. One cane re­finer said his com­pany wants to la­bel its sug­ar as GMO-free, but the line for cer­ti­fic­a­tion from the Non-GMO Pro­ject is so long it may take a year be­fore the com­pany can make that claim.

Charlie Arnot of the Cen­ter for Food In­teg­rity, a group that con­sults with food com­pan­ies on com­mu­nic­a­tions with con­sumers, told the sweeten­er users that GMOs are a sym­bol of con­sumers’ dis­trust of Big Food.

The Co­ali­tion for Safe Af­ford­able Food, the in­dustry group that op­poses man­dat­ory la­beling, said Tues­day, “We see no ma­jor road bumps that will slow the mo­mentum at our backs.”

Big Food may be right that Con­gress will pass a bill ban­ning state la­beling and send it to Obama, but Heitkamp is right that the con­sumer de­mands will con­tin­ue—and that the com­pan­ies will con­tin­ue to be­lieve the cus­tom­er is al­ways right.

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