Chairman Roberts on Biotechnology Labeling: ‘It’s Time to Act.’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today urged the Senate to support his legislation to provide a uniform standard for bioengineering and an incentive to provide more information on biotechnology to consumers.

The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill is Chairman Roberts’ compromise legislation to prevent an unworkable patchwork of state-by-state biotechnology labeling laws. The legislation creates a national voluntary standard that would become mandatory – only if the marketplace fails to provide consumers with enough information. This legislation holds the marketplace accountable while providing companies with incentives to disclose more information about how food is produced.

“What we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue – despite claims by my colleagues on the Senate floor. 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.”

“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.”

“This legislation puts forward policies that will help all consumers not only find information, but also demand consistent information from food manufacturers.”

Click here for audio and video of Roberts’ remarks.

The following are Senator Roberts’ remarks as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, I rise today – on National Agriculture Day – as the Senate considers legislation on an issue that is critically important to our nation’s food supply. From our producers in the fields, to our consumers in aisles of grocery stores.

Without Senate action, this country will be hit with a wrecking ball that will disrupt the entire food chain. We need to act now to pass my amendment to S.764. This is a compromise approach that provides a permanent solution to the patchwork of biotechnology labeling laws that will soon be wreaking havoc on the flow of interstate commerce of agriculture and food products in our nation’s marketplace.

That’s exactly what this is about – the marketplace. Let me repeat that – this is about the marketplace. It’s not about safety, or health, or nutrition…it’s about marketing. Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe.

In fact, the Agriculture Committee last year heard from the three Federal 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 policymaking – including this policy we are debating today…one of the most important food and agriculture decisions in recent decades.

At our hearing, the federal government expert witnesses highlighted the steps their agencies have already 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.

At the conclusion of the hearing, virtually all Senate Agriculture Committee members were in agreement. What happened? When did sound science go out the window?

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 – despite claims by my colleagues on the Senate floor. 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: if we fail to act, 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 anybody – not the consumer, nor the farmer.

Today’s farmers are being asked to produce more safe and affordable food to meet growing demands at home and around a troubled and hungry world.

At the same time, they are facing increased challenges to production, including limited land and water resources, uncertain weather patterns, 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 the farmer to the consumer.

Now, I also hear, and I do understand the concern from some of my colleagues about consumers and available information about our food. Some consumers want to know more about ingredients. This is a good thing. Consumers should take an interest in their food, where it comes from, and the farmers and ranchers that produce their food.

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

This legislation puts forward policies that will help all consumers not only find information, but also demand consistent information from food manufacturers.

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

The Committee-passed bill created a voluntary national standard for biotechnology labeling claims of food. I heard concerns that a voluntary only standard would not provide consumers with enough information, even though there is no health, safety, or nutritional concern with biotechnology.

So, we worked out a compromise to address these concerns by providing an incentive for the marketplace to provide more information. This legislation allows the market to work.

However, if they do not live up to their commitments – if information is not made available to consumers – then this legislation holds the market accountable.

Under this proposal, a mandatory labeling program would go into effect only if the voluntary program does not provide significant information after several years.

The marketplace would then have adequate time to adjust and utilize a variety of options to disclose information about ingredients – along with a wealth of other information about the food on the shelves.

Simply put, the legislation before us provides an immediate and comprehensive solution to the unworkable state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws.

“Preemption doesn’t extend to state consumer protection laws or anything beyond the wrecking ball that we see related to biotechnology labeling mandates.  And we ensure that the solution to the state patchwork, the one thing we all agree upon, is effective.”

It sets national uniformity that allows for the free flow of interstate commerce, a power granted to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. This labeling uniformity is based on science and allows the value chain from farmer-to-processor-to-shipper-to-retailer-to-consumer to continue as the free market intended.

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. Let’s keep in mind – this is a good thing. We want consumers informed about food and farming practices.  At the same time, we also must not demonize food with unnecessary labels.

This debate is about more than catchy slogans and made up names for bills. It’s about the role of the Federal government to ensure the free flow of commerce, to make decisions based on sound science, all the while providing opportunity for the market to meet the demands of consumers.

This also isn’t the first time this body has addressed this issue.  In 2012 and 2013, members of the Senate soundly rejected the idea of mandatory labeling for biotechnology.

That’s right, both times more than 70 members voted to reject mandatory labeling.

This body stood up for sound science and common sense then…and I trust my colleagues will continue to stand up and defend sound science again.

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.

This legislation has the support of more than 650 organizations – large and small – representing the entire food chain, and that number continues to grow every day. Never before in the Agriculture Committee have we seen such a coalition of constituents all united behind such an effort. Their message is clear: it’s time for us to act.  It’s time for us provide certainty in the marketplace.

I appreciate the bipartisan support of those on the Committee who joined me by voting to approve our Committee bill.  We’ve made significant changes to address the concerns of others. Now, we must carry this across the finish line. I urge my colleagues to support this compromise approach, and protect the safest most abundant and affordable food supply in the world.

I yield the floor.