WASHINGTON, April 30, 2015 - A House committee is preparing for the first time to move a bill that would preempt state GMO labeling laws, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is offering support for the effort.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton of Michigan, told Agri-Pulse on Thursday that he will hold a hearing on the bill and then go to subcommittee and full committee markups of the legislation (HR 1599).

He would not specify when the markup would be held except to say that the committee's May schedule was full. According to a source, Upton has indicated to industry representatives that he is planning a subcommittee markup in June and action in full committee in late July or September. 

Vilsack, in an appearance before the Grocery Manufacturers Association this week, indicated that he shared the industry’s concerns about state labeling laws, a spokesman said.

Vilsack also told the group his department would assist in development of the legislation. The department “stands ready to provide appropriate technical assistance should it be needed by Congress in crafting any legislation designed to respect the consumers right to know, to convey accurate information about a product's safety, and to provide the market a clear and consistent understanding of what is required,” the spokesman said. Vilsack has previously expressed for an industry plan to begin embedding information about biotech ingredients in smartphone codes on food packages. 

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., has 30 cosponsors for the bill so far, including nine Democrats. He introduced an earlier version of the bill a year ago but Upton never brought it to a vote before the end of the 113th Congress. 

Pompeo “is getting a good number of cosponsors and we'll likely see something begin to move,” said Upton. He said Pompeo had “significant Democratic support. We always wanted to make it bipartisan.” Three of the 37 cosponsors of last year's bill were Democrats.

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Congress has traditionally been reluctant to block state labeling requirements, but a Vermont labeling law that the food industry is currently challenging in court could increase the pressure on lawmakers to act in this case. 

federal judge this week refused to issue a preliminary injunction to stop the law from going into effect as scheduled on July 1, 2016. However, U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss allowed the lawsuit the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups to go forward. 

“We're delighted with Chairman Upton's commitment and the unprecedented momentum behind the this legislation, which reflects the urgent need to enact a uniform national labeling solution and the perils of a state-by-state patchwork of labeling regulations,” said Claire Parker, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, a group backed by food and agriculture interests.  

No bill has been introduced in the Senate yet. 

Under the House bill, no labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients could be required unless there is a “material difference” between the biotech ingredient and its conventionally bred version. The legislation details rules for a premarket approval process run by the Food and Drug Administration for new biotech ingredients. 

The bill also would set up a certification process run by the Agriculture Department for foods that are labeled as non-GMO.

Pompeo told Agri-Pulse on Thursday that the Vermont ruling underscored the potential threat of state and local labeling requirements. 

“You will ultimately have a thousand different rules, not 50. You'll have every town decide they have their own set of rules, every city, LA, San Francisco. The cost of food for low-income Americans will go far higher than it needs to be," Pompeo said.

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Sam Farr of California, warned at a hearing earlier this year that he expects his state to eventually require labeling of biotech foods. 

A key House Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has said he thinks it's premature to consider a labeling bill because of an ongoing debate over whether regulation of bioengineered foods should be expanded beyond transgenic products. Peterson is the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee. 


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