Washington Week Ahead: Floor fight looms over biotech labeling
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WASHINGTON, March 6, 2016 - Both sides of the biotech labeling debate are gearing up for a final showdown on the Senate floor that could arrive as soon as this week.
Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have been negotiating details of a compromise version of the bill that the panel approved, 14-6, last week to preempt state GMO labeling laws. The key to passing a bill is to work out disclosure requirements that could appeal to enough Democrats to overcome an expected filibuster.
Senate action on the bill is a “definite possibility” as early this week, according to a Senate source.
The industry-backed Coalition for Safe Affordable Food and the American Soybean Association last week launched an effort last week to get farmers to call into Senate offices. A toll-free number was set up - 866-464-6633 - so growers can call to get advice on how to contact senators.
Coalition spokeswoman Claire Parker said the group would “continue to pursue our full bore effort to get a uniform national labeling bill passed through Congress and will be urging that the Senate acts on this urgent matter before the Easter recess.”
The committee's legislation would allow food companies to proceed with plans to disclose biotech ingredients through a smartphone code or on the web through the new SmartLabel system. A possible compromise proposed by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., would make the disclosure system mandatory if it doesn't cover at least 85 percent of relevant products within four years.
“You give industry some time to figure out how flexible it needs to be, whether it's a 1-800 number, whether it's a website, whether it's a SmartLabel, or something else. And you use that time to educate people that this is going to be available,” Vilsack said.
“If you have that kind of system that's mandatory, that's flexible, with time you can get 60 votes and get something that can get through the Senate.”
The House passed a different preemption bill last summer but is expected to go along with whatever legislation emerges for the Senate.
Opponents have labeled the preemption bill the “DARK Act,” as in “Denying Americans the Right to Know.” They want Congress to instead mandate that companies put wording or a symbol on foods and they are trying to drum up a public outcry that would discourage Democrats from supporting the preemption bill.
At a hearing before the panel last week, the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Robert Califf, affirmed the FDA's long-standing position that there is no legal justification for mandatory labeling of biotech products unless they are materially different than conventional version.
Vilsack also will speak to the National Farmers Union in Bloomington, Minn., on Monday at the group's annual convention.
Members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition will be on Capitol Hill for the second week in a row to lobby lawmakers to protect conservation spending and other programs from cuts in the appropriations process.
The group's policy director, Ferd Hoefner, said the farmers are largely avoiding the biotech labeling issue and instead focusing on preserving funding for food safety training, outreach to veteran and minority farmers, sustainable agriculture research, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The House is in recess this week.
Overseas, the European Union is moving toward reapproving the use of glyphosate herbicide, best known by the trade name Roundup. to consider a European Commission proposal to extend authorization for glyphosate for 15 years.
Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, March 7
Darci Vetter, the chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator, speaks at the Virginia Governor's Conference on Agricultural Trade, Richmond, Va.
9 a.m. - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addresses the NFU meeting.
Tuesday, March 8
NFU annual meeting.
8 a.m. - Vilsack addresses the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on federal efforts to improve child nutrition and curb opioid abuse, Omni Shoreham.
Wednesday, March 9
9:30 a.m. - Waterways Council press conference to discuss the Army Corps of Engineers' fiscal 2017 budget and the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization, National Press Club.
10 a.m. - Vilsack and former agriculture secretaries Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman discuss federal nutrition policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, 1225 Eye Street, NW.
Thursday, March 10
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with President Obama, White House.
Friday, March 11
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman meets with European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
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