Historic GMO labeling compromise clears Congress

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016 - In a sweeping victory for farm groups, food companies and the biotech industry, the House voted overwhelmingly today to clear legislation that will prevent states from requiring on-package labeling of GMOs.  

The historic compromise, which was crafted in the Senate and is now headed to the White House for President Obama's signature, passed 306-117, with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. The White House on Wednesday said the president would sign the measure, citing the “bipartisan effort” that went into developing the compromise in the Senate.

The Agriculture Department issued a statement saying that a working group had already been formed to write rules necessary to implement the legislation. 

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The bill will mandate disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients but will allow companies to do it through scannable smartphone codes as an alternative to on-package text or symbol. The legislation is intended to nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which has already forced major companies to start disclosing GMO ingredients on product packages. 

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said state labeling laws like Vermont's “threaten to increase …  consumer confusion and food costs while interfering with interstate commerce.”

For lawmakers from both parties, the bill was a flawed compromise, either because it will require disclosure of GMOs or because it didn't mandate the on-package labeling that typically gets strong support in consumer polls.

But food and agriculture interests nationwide were united in their support for the bill, which had the support of the Organic Trade Association as well as the conventional industry that relies on biotechnology. The Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played a key role, too, in helping develop the bill as a way to end the long-running controversy over GMO labeling and provide some certainty for the future of biotechnology.

Some 205 Republicans and 101 Democrats voted for the bill; 36 Republicans and 81 Democrats opposed it. 

“No one gets everything they want but, at the end of the day, I believe this bill will provide the transparency consumers crave while, at the same time, allow continued innovation in food production,” Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, argued during the floor debate. 

Conaway has raised concerns about the bill both publicly and in private meetings with lobbyists and farmers, arguing that it is ambiguous and leaves USDA with too much discretion in its implementation.

Both he and Peterson favored leaving biotech disclosure voluntary, which a preemption bill that passed the House a year ago would have done. The mandatory disclosure requirement emerged at the insistence of Senate Democrats, who successfully blocked a voluntary labeling bill in March.

Conaway told Agri-Pulse in an interview after the vote that lawmakers will be monitoring USDA's implementation of the law, which among other things will require the department to make clear what ingredients and techniques of genetic engineering will be subject to disclosure. 

Conaway said the large majorities that the bill received in the House and the Senate, where the bill passed 63-30, reflected a sense of urgency to preempt labeling laws after Vermont's took effect July 1. “The clock ran to zero,” he said. “People saw how important it was to get the interstate commerce thing cleared up.”

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, who has called the bill the most important farm legislation in 20 years,, told Agri-Pulse that Congress could reopen the bill if concerns develop with implementation. 

“Congress could certainly come back in and help if there is any misunderstanding of what is in the legislation. That's the normal process,” Roberts said.

Advocates of on-package labeling argued that the digital disclosure option was unfair to consumers, since it would require them to use a phone to scan QR codes on product labels. 

“This is a complicated solution to a simple problem,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told colleagues. 

“Consumers do have the right to know what's in their food, but the problem is that right now when you pick up a box of cereal or a bag of rice in the grocery store, you don't know if you're buying something with GMO ingredients in it. The solution is simple: list GMO ingredients on the back of the package in the ingredient list in plain English.”

But Rodney Davis, R-Ill., argued that the on-package labeling for which Pingree was advocating was intended to “stigmatize a safe and valuable tool for farmers.” 

He expressed disappointment that the voluntary labeling approach was blocked in the Senate but said that it was imperative that Congress shut down Vermont's labeling requirement. “The clock has run out. My producers need certainty,” he said. 

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Some activists continued to hold out that Obama would veto the measure and are organizing petitions to the White House. 

The Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, released a letter to the president from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, arguing that low-income shoppers would be unable to access information about GMOs. “There are serious questions of discrimination presented,” wrote Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH coalition. 

Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the big, bipartisan majorities behind the legislation were “remarkable.” 

”Republicans and Democrats found consensus on the common ground that a patchwork of different state labeling laws would be a costly and confusing disaster for the nation's food supply chain,” she said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation had resisted making disclosure mandatory but came around to support the compromise, which Roberts, R-Kan., wrote together with his committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

“Genetically engineered crops have a decades-long track record of safety and benefits for agricultural productivity and our environment. This legislation helps to continue those benefits by avoiding the confusion of differing and potentially misleading labeling standards from state to state,” said Zippy Duvall, the goup's president. 

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