Senate passes bill to create federal labeling standard for GMO foods
© Greg Nash

A bill to keep states from issuing their own mandatory labeling laws for foods made with genetically modified ingredients sailed through the Senate on Thursday despite pushback from Democrats. 

The bill, which passed 63-30, directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a national labeling standard within two years that requires food producers to use text, symbols or QR codes consumers can scan with a smartphone to find out if a product contains genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. 

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The late-night vote came after Democrats wore out the procedural clock and blocked Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (R-Ky.) from scheduling votes earlier Thursday. 

Though hailed as a bipartisan agreement in the national debate over GMO labeling, the legislation outraged Democrats.

“The idea that people would need to walk around the grocery store scanning product codes just to find out what’s in the food they’re buying is ridiculous and unfair,” Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (D-Ill.) said while debating the bill on the floor Thursday. “Food companies should not be able to hide behind confusing coded labels that conceal their products’ ingredients.” 

The Center for Food Safety argued that QR codes discriminate against low-income, rural and elderly people, as well as a disproportionately high number of minority Americans that don’t have smartphones or Internet access.   

But Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-N.C.) argued that QR codes are commonplace and easy to use.

“So for those who say this is some sort of weird code or outdated, I don't know about you all but that's not the world that I live in,” he said.

McConnell called the legislation a "compromise bill that would protect middle-class families from unnecessary and unfair higher food prices while also ensuring access to information about the food they purchase."  

"It's the result of bipartisan work to address an issue that could negatively harm consumers and procedures," he added. 

Before a procedural vote to advance the legislation Wednesday, Democrats criticized their colleagues across the aisle for rushing the bill to the floor for a vote.

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidFeinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee Bottom line MORE (Nev.) said lawmakers should have had the opportunity to discuss the bill in committee first. 

“We owe it, as a body to the American people, to give this legislation proper consideration,” he said. “We should not stand for Republican leaders jamming this legislation through the Senate.” 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.), who backed a failed effort to pigeonhole the GMO bill, called it a "simple truth" that consumers should know what's in their food. 

"People have the right to know what is in the food they eat and when parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating," he said. 

Democrats who voted for the legislation said they were doing so in line with scientific findings.  

“I urge my colleagues to stop denying science and start understanding GMO ingredients are just as healthy for American consumers as any other ingredient,” said Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Grassley suggests moderate Democrats for next Agriculture secretary Major unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary MORE (D-N.D.). 

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the labeling debate is not over whether GMOs are safe or unsafe. 

“The labeling would not be in any way a warning to consumers,” he said. “It would be informational only. The debate here and the objective of this measure is to provide information as dispassionately, clearly and objectively as possible. That’s the goal.”