Battle over GMO labeling shifts to Senate

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 23, 2015 - The food industry's campaign to stop states from requiring labels on genetically engineered products faces an uncertain future in the Senate following a landmark, bipartisan victory in the House.

With support from 45 Democrats, the House voted 275-150 on Thursday to approve the  Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), which in addition to preempting state GMO labeling requirements would set up a process for labeling foods as non-biotech. Twelve Republicans opposed the bill.

“We managed to get nearly every Republican and a significant number of Democrats. It puts us on pretty good footing to go over to the Senate,” said Kansas GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo, who introduced the bill and managed it on the House floor.

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Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, called the House margin “a very, very strong vote for us. … 275-150 is almost two to one. How many times does the House vote like that?"

Supporters of the bill hoped that a large House margin would help generate Democratic support in the Senate, where opponents continue to predict the bill will die. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is expected to introduce a companion measure but has yet to announce a Democrat who is willing to co-sponsor it.

After the House vote Thursday, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, agreed that “we need to have a national policy” on GMO labeling but stopped short of endorsing the House measure.

“There's been a lot of conversations going on,” she said when asked about the prospect for a Democratic co-sponsor. “We really believe that that bill needs some work to be able to pass over here, so we're looking at it,” she said.

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he would be trying to persuade several moderate Senate Democrats to support the bill, but he noted that they had already been pressed to take stands on other issues important to agriculture, including the Obama administration's new Clean Water Act rule.

Significant Democratic support will be needed in the Senate to get the 60 votes necessary to break a potential filibuster there.

Scott Faber, a former lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association who is now leading the fight against the bill, flatly predicted that the bill would fail to get out of the Senate.

The House vote “was a foregone conclusion,” he said. “No one is surprised the most anti-consumer House in history would vote to deny consumers the right to know what's in their food.”

He named at least three Republicans who he was confident would oppose the bill, including Alaska's senators and Susan Collins of Maine. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has been working to require labeling for genetically engineered salmon, while Maine has passed a GMO labeling law, contingent on neighboring states also passing one.

A leading opponent of the bill, Peter Welch, D-Vt., attributed the outcome in the House to the sway of “an enormous industrial agricultural community” and its arguments that among other things GMO labeling would raise food prices.  

Senators should “tread carefully, because consumers get riled up about this,” Welch said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the issue after the August recess.

The bill has become particularly urgent for the food and agriculture sectors because of a Vermont labeling law that is set to take effect next July.

The House defeated a series of amendments  from Democrats, including one by Peter DeFazio of Oregon, that would have essentially set up mandatory labeling system by requiring that any company that labels a product as genetically engineered overseas must label it the same way in the United States.

Other amendments that were defeated would have assured that tribal governments could restrict the cultivation of genetically engineered crops and barred the Food and Drug Administration from including GMOs in the definition of “natural” foods. The bill would require the FDA to define the use of the word “natural” on food labels but would leave it to the agency to decide whether to allow genetically engineered ingredients.

In a bit of last-minute theater, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., proposed after the House vote to change the name of the bill to the DARK Act, for "Denying Americans the Right to Know." It failed, 87-337.

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