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US Senate Inches Toward GMO Labeling Bill

Genetically-modified rice plants in a BASF greenhouse.

Congress inched closer to setting a national standard for labeling genetically-modified foods Wednesday, even as farm-state Democrats and Republicans championed the safety of GMOs and voiced frustration that most consumers don't agree.

Surprising many, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she is committed to getting a labeling bill passed by the end of this year. She appeared to support a measure passed by the full House in July which outlaws states from passing their own labeling laws and nullifies those already passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.

"I share the concern about the difficulty in doing business across our country if 50 different states have 50 different standards and requirements and frankly, it won't work," she said.

Alluding to polls that show more than 90 percent of Americans want the labels, Stabenow said that consumer support will "build steam" and increase into the future. But one of her demands for the bill, Stabenow said, would be a label that "does not stigmatize biotechnology."

Labeling advocates have fought the House bill, as it sets up a voluntary federal system, allows the U.S. Agriculture Department to set the standards and would allow some genetically modified foods to be labeled as "natural."

Wednesday's hearing did not look at a specific bill, but rather, was an oversight meeting with representatives from the EPA, USDA and FDA discussing biotechnology. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, noted his and others' frustration that the majority of evidence shows genetically engineered food is safe.

"Each of us have our megaphones that we can talk to our farmers and ranchers and all of agriculture and, for that matter, the food industry," he said, "but it is a challenge."

Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of the "Just Label It" campaign, said the U.S. should join the 64 countries who have labeling laws. A national labeling standard should be "a value-neutral disclosure that respects the right of consumers to make their own choices," he said.

"I know from my own experience that food companies change our labels all the time to highlight new innovations and that food companies and farmers already segregate GMO and conventional ingredients to serve our markets at home and abroad," he said. "I also know from experience that a value-neutral disclosure will not cause sudden shifts in consumer behavior."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, said the government has done a poor job of communicating that there is strong science behind the safety of GMOs.

Interrupting a government scientist who was trying to explain his agency's communications, Heitkamp said, "Except that what people hear is: blah blah blah blah blah. And I think that's a serious problem as it relates to what we're trying to do. We're talking about how do we provide consumer information and information consumers want vs. what consumers need."

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.