Push to label GE food, including salmon, has staunch opponents

Photo: Michael Foley
Photo: Michael Foley

Since the FDA approved AquAdvantage, a genetically altered salmon, as safe to eat last fall, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been working on a labeling mandate that would inform consumers the fish is genetically engineered. This morning, the U.S. Senate considered a bill that would make that impossible. The bill didn’t get enough votes to advance, but the debate shows the forces Murkowski is up against when it comes to labeling genetically modified organisms.

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Food manufacturers and agribusiness fiercely oppose labeling laws for genetically modified food. They say the label would suggest the food is unsafe. But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t mention the industry in describing the purpose of the bill.

“(It’s) aimed at protecting middle-class families from unfair higher food prices,” says McConnell, R-Kentucky.

The bill would nullify state laws requiring GMO labeling, like the fish-labeling law the Alaska Legislature passed a decade ago. More urgently for the bill’s proponents, it would block a Vermont law that would require labeling of all GMO foods, starting in July.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, told his colleagues that if they don’t pass his bill, the states will enact a patchwork of laws, requiring GMO food to carry what he described as ”demonizing” labels.

“Without Senate action, this country will be hit with a wrecking ball … that will disrupt the entire food chain,” he said.

Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, warns that failure to pass the bill will cost each family more than $1,000 a year in higher prices, and he says the hardship will be widespread.

“From the farmer who will have to plant fence row to fence row of a crop that is less efficient, to the grain elevator that will have to adjust storage options to separate types of grain, to the manufacturer who will need different labels for different states, to the distributor who will need expanded options for storage. And,” he said, “to the retailer who may be unable to afford offering low-cost private label products.”

The bill would allow voluntary labeling, and possibly later require manufacturers to include phone numbers or bar codes the consumer can scan with a smart phone. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called it an anti-labeling law and a sham. She imagined a busy dad in a supermarket, holding his phone up to a QR code, scrolling through information on a company website.

“Or he’s going to have to call a 1-800 number,” Boxer said, in a tone of incredulity. “Can you believe this? The man is going through the grocery store. He’s got 50 products in his cart. He’s going, ‘Wait a minute, kids. Just a minute.’”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski tried to draw a distinction between mandatory labeling of genetically modified crops, which has substantial opposition in Congress, and labeling of GMO fish. She described her opposition to the legislation as limited.

“It’s not opposition to the overall bill, or its underpinnings,” she said. “Where my concern remains is mistakenly allowing genetically engineered salmon into our homes, mislabeled as salmon.”

The bill got only 48 of the 60 votes it needed to advance, but its advocates say they’re not giving up.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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