GMO labeling fight set to rekindle in January

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2015 - Lawmakers are pledging to re-double efforts to pass legislation early next year to block state GMO labeling laws and set national disclosure standards. 

The industry wanted to get a bill attached to the must-pass fiscal 2016 spending agreement that congressional leaders reached on Tuesday, but talks stalled and Senate Democrats stopped even a temporary preemption measure from being included. 

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“The clock's ticking. We'll be back in session in January and that's got to be at the front,” said House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “We've got it fixed in the House. We've just to get the Senate to move on it.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has also pledged to make the issue a top priority in January. She had been leading negotiations on the legislation this fall and had said in October that she wanted a bill passed by the end of the year. 

An industry lobbyist who didn't want to be quoted by name said negotiations would “begin in earnest” right after the first of the year on broad legislation.

A Vermont labeling laws is set to take effect in July, and the failure of the federal preemption measure could embolden labeling proponents who are gearing up to push next year for labeling laws in New York state and Connecticut, said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, which supports the state labeling efforts. 

“We are definitely concerned that there will be an industry push for electronic disclosure instead of a mandatory on-package requirement, which is what we will continue advocate,” Lovera said. “I think we will all be spending lots of time on this when Congress is back.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., had been planning to cosponsor a Senate preemption bill but never introduced it while the negotiations were ongoing.

“We need to come up with a long-term solution. That's what I've been after from day one. So I'm ready to go to work and I think we need to get to work right away on a compromise that both sides can support,” he said. 

Stabenow and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have been pushing the idea of providing disclosure of biotech ingredients via smartphone, QR codes and the internet rather than through language or symbols on the label. The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently announced the launch of the electronic disclosure system known as SmartLabel, but companies aren't required to participate. 

Stabenow has said that disclosure needs to be mandatory. Conaway has argued that disclosure should be voluntary, but when he was asked Wednesday about the possibility of compromise on that point, he said, “I'm not going to negotiate with her with you.”

Biotech labeling isn't the only issue high on the Senate Agriculture Committee's to-do list. Stabenow and Chairman Pat Roberts also were unable to wrap up work on reauthorization of school nutrition standards. Roberts, R-Kansas, told Agri-Pulse this week that House Speaker Paul Ryan's office had objected to attaching a reauthorization bill to the omnibus. 

Roberts, in a statement, said Wednesday that the nutrition bill would be the committee's “first priority in the new year.” Said Stabenow, “I am committed to moving forward as soon as possible next year."

The 2,009-page omnibus spending bill does include a provision that a key backer says would require FDA to issue guidelines for labeling genetically engineered salmon before it can be marketed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the measure would stop short of mandating such labeling, but she said she would continue to push for that.

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The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Jerry Moran, said he and other lawmakers, including ranking Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, were unhappy that the FDA announced the approval of the biotech fish in November without providing any advance notification to Congress. 

“I would have appreciated an understanding of what FDA was doing and was thinking and that did not occur,” the Kansas Republican said. 

He noted that the labeling requirement would expire next Sept. 30, allowing time for FDA to address congressional concerns. “What I hope happens now is that there is a conversation between FDA and those members of Congress who are so strongly interested interested in this topic,” he said. 

Murkowski says it is a different issue than labeling plant products.

(Updated Dec. 18.)

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