WASHINGTON -- The Senate blocked a bill Wednesday that would have set voluntary labeling standards for genetically modified foods but would also have barred states like Vermont from setting their own rules.
Republicans argued that companies will soon face a morass of competing label laws that will raise costs for firms and prices for consumers and frighten Americans unnecessarily.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the bill was "aimed at protecting middle-class families from unfair higher food prices" and argued that calls for labeling were based on unfounded fears of genetically engineered foods.
The bill's lead advocate in the Senate, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), cited an industry study done for the Corn Refiners Association to allege that consumers would have to pay an extra $82 billion a year if the country were to abide by rules similar to Vermont's GMO labeling law.
He argued that labeling was essentially a profit-making scheme for organic food companies.
"It's not about safety, it's not about health, it's not about nutrition. It's all about marketing," Roberts said.
The measure failed to pass a procedural vote, falling 48 to 49.
A number of Democrats did not entirely disagree with Roberts, asserting that genetically engineered foods are safe and that a "50-state patchwork" of rules was counter-productive.
"Leading health organizations like the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the FDA, the World Health Organization all say that there's no evidence that GMOs aren't safe," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. "We agree that biotechnology is an important tool for farmers and ranchers, particularly as we tackle the challenges of climate change, which, by the way, science also tells us is real, and I believe in science."
But she opposed the bill, nevertheless, on the grounds that Americans should be able to learn easily what they are buying to feed their families.
"A growing number of American consumers want to know more about the food they eat," Stabenow said. "And they have the right to know. They have the right to know what is in their food."
Not all senators, or even all Republicans, were prepared to concede GMOs were safe.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), was among those adamantly opposed to the measure because she opposes the FDA's recent move to allow the sale of genetically engineered salmon, which she sees as a threat to wild salmon stocks.
"I know Alaska well. I also well know the immense value of our fisheries and the potential for havoc that something like this Frankenfish could wreak upon our wild, sustainable stocks," Murkowski said.
"We will not accept that it will be allowed to be sold without clear labeling, because I don't want to make any mistakes," she added. "I don't want to find that what I have served my family is a genetically engineered fish. And I use 'fish' lightly."
Although McConnell favored the bill, he voted against it, in a procedural step that allows him to bring the measure back to the floor in the future.
The failure does not necessarily kill the bill, and it could be brought back if Roberts and industry-friendly Democrats like Stabenow could cut a deal.
The House has already passed a similar measure.