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DARK Act Heads to Senate, Bill Would Block Mandatory GMO Labeling

The GMO label law fight took a turn Tuesday after the Senate Agriculture Committee voted to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFE) in a 14-6 vote.

Dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, if voted into law, the bill would block states from requiring labeling on genetically modified (GMO) foods and pre-empt state laws that require labeling from going into effect—like the one taking effect in Vermont in July.

The Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)-introduced bill would establish a national voluntary labeling standard for foods made with GMOs, similar to the bill already passed in the House. Proponents of the bill—such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 food and beverage titans—argue that a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies would be costly.

The GMA, which has slapped numerous lawsuits and spent millions in lobbying against mandatory labels at the state and federal level, commended the vote.

“We thank Senator Roberts for his leadership to find a common-sense solution that now goes to the full Senate with bipartisan momentum,” said GMA president and CEO Pam Bailey, in a statement. “It is critically important that the full Senate pass this legislation as quickly as possible and for the bill to be voted on by the House. Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect on July 1, and this law could increase food costs for families across the nation by an average of $1,050 a year.”

The comment is similar to the Corn Refiners Association's warning that GMO labeling will ultimately force manufacturers to reformulate products to non-GMO and pass on costs to consumers. “We know that we have to stop the wrecking ball. That’s the whole thing,” Roberts told reporters Monday night before the Senate Ag. vote.

Opponents, on the other hand, cite polls showing that the majority of Americans want to know if they're eating GMOs, a right given to consumers in 64 countries around the world. Voters across the U.S. are demanding transparency in their food, as more than 30 states have introduced legislation to require GMO labels and laws passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.

"The version of the DARK Act that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee today would rob Americans of their right to know what’s in their food. Nine out of ten Americans want the same rights as consumers in Russia, China and more than 60 other nations that require mandatory GMO labeling," Scott Faber, the Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president of government affairs, said.

Faber also refuted that GMO labeling would be prohibitively expensive: "The truth is, food companies change their labels all the time to highlight innovations or make new claims. Adding a few words to the back of the package as part of a routine label change will have no impact on the cost of making food, studies show."

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The Center for Food Safety has also condemned the new bill. “It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont’s citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed. The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety, said.

Several Democratic Senators have also spoken out against the bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a joint statement Monday saying that the bill is essentially a industry attack on their state:

We cannot allow the interests of multinational corporations to trump the interests of American consumers. These powerful interests claim that the sky is falling, and it is not. Our state, defending Vermonters’ right to know, has chosen to require labeling of factual, noncontroversial information for consumers. We know the companies can do this—firms like Campbell’s have said so. They already are working with Vermont to comply with the labeling requirement and have labels printed and ready to go.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) also sent out this tweet, calling the SAFE Act a "sham GMO bill":

Somewhat in the middle ground of the whole GMO labeling rumble, ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) voted against the draft bill in order to find a compromise that works for consumers and the industry alike. She said in a statement:

As I have said from the beginning of this process: for a solution, which includes a 50 state preemption, to receive the broad support necessary to pass the Senate; it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices.

Three Democrats out of nine on the Sen. Ag. Committee voted to allow it to go the full Senate. All of the Republicans voted in favor of the bill. The draft bill will now move out of committee into the full Senate.

Still, it's unclear if the bill will garner enough Senate votes for passage into law, as POLITICO pointed out:

The legislation will need more Democratic support as it's far from clear that there are enough votes for it to pass the upper chamber. Republicans can't count on Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as they campaign for president, and Roberts told reporters Tuesday he's not sure all 54 Republicans would be on board anyway.

"Compromise is necessary to get the additional votes that I would like to have," Roberts told reporters. "I would like to have a very solid vote, and you have to have 60."

Food & Water Watch's Executive Director Wenonah Hauter is urging "all Senators to oppose this bill that will ensure that big food processing companies and the biotechnology industry continue to profit by misleading consumers." She says that "the majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable if they vote to strip away transparency about how their food is produced.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is also set to introduce a bill today that would require food makers to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients on Nutrition Facts labels, according to POLITICO. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Leahy and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

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Kevin Vallely

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I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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