Congress may be headed for an election-year decision on whether to help big food companies that don’t want to comply with a new Vermont state law designed to give consumers more information about what’s on their plates.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is negotiating legislation that would invalidate state rules mandating labels for food containing genetically modified organisms -- including the one scheduled to go into effect July 1 in Vermont. Instead, the senators propose creating a voluntary federal labeling program.
Trade groups representing agribusinesses including Monsanto Co. support the proposal, sponsored by Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the farm-policy committee. Without federal action, “you are going to just have a hodgepodge where the food industry can’t sell their products,” Roberts told reporters Tuesday.
Ranking Agriculture Committee Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is pushing for a mandatory label and a two-year moratorium on state laws rather than permanent pre-emption. Roberts said compromise is "doable," but that he wants a law this year.
A meeting to consider the bill was postponed until next week because of changes in the Senate floor schedule, according to an e-mail from Roberts’s staff. Action initially had been scheduled for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, negotiations among committee Republicans, Democrats and the Obama administration continue.
GMO Labelling Bill to Go Before Senate Ag Committee
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today that Vermont’s law will “create chaotic circumstances” if it’s allowed to go into effect. “This needs to be fixed,” he said today in a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee.
Senator Bernie Sanders took time out from his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to defend his home state’s labeling law against congressional action.
“I am very proud that Vermont took the lead nationally to make sure people know what is in the food they eat,” Sanders, an independent, said in a statement today. “Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMOs.”
Connecticut and Maine have passed their own GMO-labeling laws containing provisions saying they can’t be implemented until other states follow suit. Companies including Monsanto, the world’s biggest GMO seed-maker, have spent millions of dollars defeating ballot initiatives in California, Oregon and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Campbell Soup Co. is voluntarily labeling its products.
GMO ingredients are common in food sold in the U.S., where more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets are bio-engineered. The Corn Refiners Association, a trade group including Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Ingredion Inc. that opposes the Vermont law, estimates the measure could cost U.S. households up to $1,050 each year extra in groceries as companies reformulate products to exclude GMO ingredients. Supporters of labeling say that figure is too high.
“We have to get going on this,” said Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota. Should Vermont’s law go into effect, "ultimately the impact will be on consumers both in terms of not being able to get the product they want and in terms of cost," he said.
Roberts said the Vermont law is biased against sugar beets, which would be disadvantaged against GMO-free cane sugar, and would hurt cattle ranchers who rely on corn for feed as well as soybean growers. State labels also would complicate supply chains and raise unnecessary fears among consumers, said Andrew LaVigne, president and chief executive officer of the American Seed Trade Association in Alexandria, Virginia.
“It doesn’t make sense for food that has been deemed as safe for consumers to have a patchwork of different requirements. How do you load the trucks for delivery?" asked LaVigne, whose group represents companies including Monsanto, Syngenta AG and BASF SE in Washington.
Should Roberts succeed, precedent for federal pre-emption of state food laws could be used to stymie initiatives on food safety, animal welfare and other areas, said Lisa Archer, technology director for Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group in Berkeley, California. Activists can win at the state level what they can’t at the federal, where lawmakers from farm states can block the plans, she said.
“We see this as precedent-setting for other labeling and transparency issues,” she said. “Antibiotics use, factory-farmed meat, hormones, if there are things agribusiness doesn’t want to happen, this would be the way to make them not happen,” she said.
The House of Representatives last year approved a plan sponsored by Republican Representative Michael Pompeo of Kansas that also would pre-empt state laws. It would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to review all genetically engineered products before they could be sold and also create a U.S. Department of Agriculture certification process for foods labeled GMO-free.
Because the threshold for any biotech label to appear on a product is very high, the Pompeo bill is a “wish list for the junk food and chemical industries,” Archer of Friends of the Earth said. While the Senate bill reflects the influence of Democrats who are more sympathetic to labeling, it still would restrict consumers’ right to know what’s in their food or how it’s produced, she said.
“At its core, this law keeps the American public from knowing what it needs to know,” she said. “Anyone who supports this attack is on the wrong side of history."
Interest-group response was immediate after Roberts released the text of his proposed legislation, with support coming from groups including the American Frozen Foods Institute, the American Feed Industry Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America and opposition from Environmental Working Group and the Organic Consumers Association, among others.
Roberts said pre-emption of state food rules that impede commerce makes sense. “What is safe in one state certainly ought to be safe in another state,” he said.
Companies lobbying to stop GMO labeling are concerned that the presence of a label will suggest to consumers that non-GMO alternatives are “more pristine, and thus better," said David Just, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
More broadly, companies would prefer food regulation to be seen through the lens of interstate commerce, which would give states less power over labeling, he said. GMO labeling differs from some other agricultural issues in that claims of a public-health or animal welfare need are less clear than in some other cases, he said.
With Congress’s time running out before Vermont takes effect and litigation likely regardless of which side prevails in the legislative fight, the debate is highly unlikely to be settled anytime soon, he said.
“State labeling laws can give a few states a lot of power over the rest of the country,” said Just, who said he isn’t opposed to GMO labels. Still, “it would seem like you can find ways to give people who want information the information they want without biasing other people,” he said.
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