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Dark Act

Responding to widespread consumer concerns, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday defeated a food-industry-backed bill that would have prohibited states from requiring companies to label products containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). The vote killed what opponents have termed the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act, but will likely reignite the debate between industry supporters and food-safety advocates as lawmakers try to reshape federal labeling guidelines.

Congressional supporters of the bill, led by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), hoped to pass the legislation before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law, the first of its kind in the nation, takes effect on July 1. They argue that complying with a wide variety of state guidelines will increase production costs and, by extension, consumer prices.

Its defeat, in a procedural vote, is a setback for farmers, Roberts told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, the impact of these decisions will be felt across the country,” he said. “Those decisions impact the farmers in fields who would be pressured to grow less-efficient crops so manufacturers could avoid these demonizing labels.”

Anti-labeling advocates argue that genetically modified crops are not harmful, but because many consumers prefer to avoid these ingredients, labeling them would hurt sales.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, hailed the vote as a victory for consumers. “We are very pleased that Congress has apparently decided not to undermine Americans’ right to know about the food they purchase and feed their families,” he said in a statement. “We will remain vigilant over the coming days and into the next legislative session to ensure our right to know is protected.”

Both sides in this debate say they prefer a single set of federal GMO-labeling rules, albeit for different reasons. Food manufacturers want to avoid having to comply with several different sets of state guidelines and hope to convince Congress to make the requirements voluntary, while consumer advocates seek to establish mandatory national regulations that would be more stringent than what states may create on their own.

For the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry trade group that includes giant food and biotech companies that have spent more than $100 million in support of anti-labeling efforts across the country, the bill’s defeat was a harsh rebuke.

“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,” GMA president Pamela Bailey told the Times in a statement, adding that she would work with congressional leaders to find common ground.

After last week’s vote, however, any compromise may be a long way off. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have each introduced mandatory labeling bills, but it’s doubtful either will get much traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, food manufacturers continue to ramp up efforts to comply with Vermont’s labeling law. And similar efforts may soon be required in Connecticut and Maine, which have passed their own guidelines, contingent on neighboring states following suit. Thirty other states have already introduced labeling legislation, which should give Bailey and other industry leaders additional incentive to negotiate a federal solution.

To learn more about the controversy surround GMOs, see “Frankenfood = Genetically Modified Foods” in our June 2013 issue.

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