For farmers and ranchers worried about food labeling rules hurting their businesses, Thursday proved to be a good day on Capitol Hill.
In the House, members voted 275-150 to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599), which prevents mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
Food and agriculture groups had criticized the proposal as being unrealistic and unfair to their products, given that scientists have generally declared genetically modified foods as safe.
Consumers, however, have been lobbying for more information about the food that they buy and eat, causing a number of states and counties to take up GMO issues on a local basis. While many have failed, not all have; Vermont’s mandatory GMO food labeling law could become effective in 2016.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act passed by the House Thursday would establish a voluntary system for providing information about foods that contain GMO ingredients. Food manufacturers would be able certify their products as GMO-free, for example, but would not be required to indicate that a product contained GMOs.
“The bill accomplishes much, including the prevention of a state-by-state patchwork of conflicting labeling laws that would drive up grocery costs,” said Wade Cowan, who is president of the American Soybean Association and a farmer in Brownfield, Texas. “Additionally, the bill empowers and guides those companies who wish to label and market their products as GMO-free to do so by through a USDA-accredited certification process. ASA believes this approach, which would label a select subset of products marketed at a premium, makes far more sense than labeling the vast majority of common, everyday products in the grocery store. What it also avoids is the inevitable demonization of these products based on debunked science and willful misinformation.”
The caveat? There is no equivalent bill in the Senate at this time.
But the Senate was busy tackling a different food labeling issue on Thursday: COOL, or country-of-origin-labeling. Senators John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) proposed a voluntary COOL bill that might address consumer preferences and the U.S.’s ongoing World Trade Organization issues with Canada and Mexico over COOL.
The proposed legislation “positions the U.S. to avoid retaliatory tariffs by repealing the mandatory COOL law and replacing it with a voluntary program that will enable processors to voluntarily label meat products,” Hoeven said. “… We cannot put ourselves in a position where Canada and Mexico can retaliate against us for mandatory country of origin labeling, but we can have a voluntary labeling program and still meet WTO requirements.”
The measure should also provide consumers with the information they seek about the meat they buy at the supermarket.
“If consumers in Canada have the right to know where their food comes from through a voluntary labeling process, then American consumers should have the same,” Stabenow said. “This bill also ensures that any American label is consistent and recognizes the hard work of America’s family farmers and ranchers who proudly raise the world’s safest, most abundant, most affordable food.”
In a statement, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association approved of the two senators’ proposal to address the longstanding situation. “The Voluntary COOL Act of 2015 provides a constructive path forward on the issue that supports both U.S. producers and consumers,” said Danni Beer, USCA president.