Senate Agriculture Committee Passes Chairman’s Mark on Biotechnology Labeling Solutions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, today held a business meeting where the Chairman’s Mark on Biotechnology Labeling Solutions was favorably reported with a bipartisan vote of 14-6.

The legislation, which creates a national solution for a state-by-state patchwork of biotechnology labeling laws, now heads to the full Senate for consideration. Chairman Roberts will continue to work toward a final solution that wins approval on the Senate floor.

“It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue,” said Chairman Roberts. “This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.”

“The Chairman’s Mark puts forward policies that will help consumers not only find information, but also demand information from manufacturers. However, it is important, as with any federal legislation on this topic, for Congress to consider scientific fact and unintended consequences.”

“Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws. It sets national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered. This allows the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended.”

The legislation has the support of more than 650 farmers, cooperatives, agribusinesses, processors, seed makers, handlers, food and feed manufacturers, lenders, and retailers.

The U.S. House of Representatives last July passed legislation on this topic with a bipartisan vote of 275-150.

The Senate Agriculture Committee last October held a hearing on agriculture biotechnology with federal regulators and perspectives from producers and consumers – the first biotechnology hearing in 10 years. The hearing focused on science and the role of the regulatory system to help ensure a safe and affordable food supply for consumers at home and around the globe.

To read the legislation and to watch the hearing, click here.

The following is Chairman Roberts’ opening statement as prepared for delivery:

I call this meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee to order.

I welcome my colleagues as we consider legislation to find a solution to the patchwork of biotechnology labeling laws that is disrupting the interstate flow of agriculture and food products in our nation’s marketplace.

Before I begin, members should be aware that, as is customary with business meetings, all members will have the opportunity to give opening remarks.

I also note that our committee rules require a reporting quorum to be present when voting on reporting out a bill. Out of respect for your demanding schedules, once we have reached a quorum I intend to ask members to hold their opening statements so that we may proceed to consideration of any amendments and the underlying mark.

Today’s meeting is an important step in considering legislation related to agricultural biotechnology and the labeling of food products.

Members will recall our hearing late last year when we clearly heard from the three agencies tasked with regulating agricultural biotechnology—USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Their work is based on sound science and is the gold standard for our policy decisions.

Our government witnesses at that time highlighted the steps their agencies have taken to ensure that agricultural biotechnology is safe — safe to other plants, safe to the environment, and safe to our food supply. It was clear that our regulatory system ensures biotechnology crops are among the most tested in the history of agriculture.

Since that hearing, the U.S. government reinforced their decisions on the safety of these products.

In November, the FDA took several steps, based on sound science, regarding food produced from biotech plants, including issuing final guidance for manufacturers who wish to voluntarily label their products as containing ingredients from biotech or exclusively non-biotech plants.

And, more importantly, the Food and Drug Administration denied a petition that would have required the mandatory labeling of biotech foods. FDA stated that the petitioner failed to provide the evidence needed for the agency to put such a requirement in place because there is no health, safety, or nutritional difference between biotech crops and their non-biotech varieties.

Thus, it is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue.

This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

This patchwork approach of mandates adds costs to national food prices. In fact, requiring changes in the production or labeling of most of the nation’s food supply for a single state would impact citizens in each of our home states. A recent study estimates that the cost to consumers could total as much as $82 billion annually—approximately $1,050 per hardworking, American family.

Let me repeat that: the cost to consumers could total as much as $82 billion annually—approximately $1,050 per hardworking, American family.

Now is not the time for Congress to make food more expensive for anyone – not the consumer, nor the producer.

We all know that today’s farmers are being asked to produce more safe and affordable food to meet growing demands at home and around the globe.

At the same time, they are facing increased challenges to production, including limited land and water resources, uncertain weather, and pest and disease issues.

Agriculture biotechnology has become a valuable tool in ensuring the success of the American farmer in meeting the challenge of increasing yield in a more efficient, safe, and responsible manner.

Any threat to the technology hurts the entire value chain – from farmer to consumer.

Now I also hear and understand the concern from some of my colleagues about consumers and available information about our food. Some consumers want to know more about ingredients.

I can assure you, the most effective tool consumers have to influence our food system, or to know more about our food, is by voting with their pocketbooks in the grocery stores and supermarkets.

The Chairman’s Mark puts forward policies that will help these consumers not only find information, but also demand information from manufacturers.

However, it is important, as with any federal legislation on this topic, for Congress to consider scientific fact and unintended consequences.

Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws. It sets national uniformity, based on science, for labeling food or seeds that are genetically engineered. This allows the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended.

Within two years, the USDA will establish a national voluntary standard for foods that are bioengineered or may contain bioengineering. Using the rulemaking process, USDA will be able to consider comments and other factors from a variety of stakeholders.

This ensures uniformity in claims made by manufacturers and will enhance clarity for consumers.

Increasingly, many Americans have taken an interest in where their food comes from and how it is made.

Under this mark, within four years, the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Health and Human Services shall submit a report on the availability of information regarding whether a food is or is not bioengineered. This voluntary disclosure of information could be available through use of the new national standard, other existing USDA authorities, or a variety of other voluntary means.

Additionally, the mark directs the Agriculture Secretary, in coordination with other federal agencies, to engage in a consumer education and outreach effort. Information will be science-based and related to environmental, nutritional, economic, and humanitarian benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

This addresses the concerns expressed from members on both sides of the aisle at the hearing in October about a need for more consumer education related to agricultural biotechnology.

On this issue, I’ve worked in good faith with our distinguished ranking member to try to reach an agreement. We both share a goal of passage on the Senate floor. And, I will continue to work with Senator Stabenow and others on both sides of the aisle to find a solution that brings certainty to the marketplace on this issue.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, time is of the essence for not only the agriculture and food value chain, but also consumers who together face the wrecking ball of this patchwork of state-by-state mandates.

Last week, we all received a letter supporting the Chairman’s Mark signed by at least 652 organizations representing the entire food chain. Never before have we seen such a coalition of our constituents all united behind such an effort. Their message was clear: it’s time for us to act and it’s time for us provide certainty in the marketplace by approving the mark before us today.

I appreciate the support of those on the Committee who will join me by voting to approve this legislation and moving us closer toward enacting a bill that solves this issue on the floor.

I now turn to my colleague, Senator Stabenow, for her opening remarks.