Washington Week Ahead: Farmers press Senate to OK biotech disclosure standards

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 26, 2016 - Farm groups and their allies in the food industry are mobilizing calls and emails to press senators to pass the historic agreement on national standards for disclosure of GMOs.

The industry wants the Senate to approve the deal this week in hopes of getting quick House approval after July 4. The House is in recess this week. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn't ruled out a vote this week, but he said the Senate is tied down with a pair of major appropriations bills, including funding to combat the Zika virus. 

The biotech legislation would kill Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law, which takes effect this Friday. There is little practical impact on the industry if the Senate bill isn't enacted until later in July, however.

On July 1, all new products sent to stores and distribution warehouses in Vermont must be labeled in compliance with the law, which requires the wording “produced” or “partially produced with genetic engineering.” But the Vermont attorney general has said companies will be allowed 30 days to correct violations, and consumers won't be allowed to file mislabeling complaints until July 2017.

“Most product on the shelves today are not labeled for the new law,” said Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association.

Lets Talk Food

The Senate legislation would allow food companies the option of disclosing biotech ingredients via a scannable code, such as the QR codes on labels that can be read by smartphones. An on-package symbol or wording would be other options. Small companies would be allowed to put a phone number or web address on labels that shoppers could use to get information about biotech ingredients.

Meat and dairy products also would be exempt from the disclosure standards, as would products that are mostly meat, unless the animals themselves were genetically engineered. Eating biotech feed wouldn't be enough to qualify as a biotech product.

States could not have labeling rules that differ from the federal standards, so the bill would essentially nullify Vermont's law.

As soon as the agreement was announced on Thursday by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the American Soybean Association immediately began urging growers to contact their senators and urge them to support the bill. “This is an effort in which we need all 25,000 members engaged, as each of us knows the importance of this technology to the industry,” the organization said.

The National Milk Producers Federation has asked all of its members “to put on a full-court press to explain the importance of agricultural biotechnology to their senators” and how the legislation would “help preserve the freedom to use that technology in the future,” said Chris Galen, a spokesman for the group.

The American Farm Bureau Federation's board is discussing its position on the legislation on Monday. The group had opposed making the disclosure requirements mandatory, as the Senate deal would do, but Stabenow had long warned that would be necessary to get enough Democratic support. 

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, had favored a House-passed bill that simply preempts state labeling laws without setting up any national disclosure standards. But on Friday he announced that he would support the Senate compromise.

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“It is not a perfect bill, but after careful review I believe it is in the best interest of farmers, consumers, and food manufacturers to have clear direction and certainty in this area. I have concluded that any further delay would needlessly prolong the uncertainty created by the Vermont law,” Peterson said. “It's important to find a balance between label transparency and the safety of these crops.”  

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway hasn't taken a position on the bill yet.

There is little time left for lawmakers to clear the Senate measure before the fall. The Senate will be out of session on Friday to start the July 4th holiday weekend and won't return until July 6. Both the House and Senate will be out of session from July 15 until September.

Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, June 27

4 p.m. - USDA releases Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, June 28

11 a.m. - World Food Prize 2016 laureate announcement, State Department.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on sage grouse conservation, 366 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee markup of its fiscal 2017 bill, 124 Dirksen.

Wednesday, June 29

Endangered species stakeholder workshop, through Thursday, Falls Church, Va.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing on EPA enforcement and compliance programs, 406 Dirksen.

Thursday, June 30

Endangered species stakeholder workshop.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

9 a.m. - U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks at Cato Institute forum, "Should Free Traders Support the Trans-Pacific Partnership?” 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

10:30 a.m. - Senate Appropriations Subcommittee markup of the FY17 State-Foreign Operations bill, 106 Dirksen.

Noon - USDA releases Acreage report.

Friday, July 1

Vermont GMO labeling law takes effect.

#30

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