WASHINGTON, July 14, 2015— A bill that would bar states from requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods could be on the House floor as soon as next week. The Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599) was approved Tuesday by the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday on a voice vote during a 15-minute meeting.
The bill, first introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., would stop states from requiring the labeling of food with genetically engineered ingredients and would set up a new certification process at USDA for foods labeled as non-GMO.
Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the current patchwork system of varied labels for products made with or without genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is inconsistent and poses a threat to interstate commerce.
“Creating a uniform national policy regarding biotechnology labeling is the free market solution that will allow consumers access to meaningful information, create market opportunities for those on the production and processing side, and will facilitate future innovation,” he said.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to waive its right to vote on the legislation. While the administration has not taken a position on the bill, USDA and FDA assisted with drafting it.
While Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is working on the Senate version of the bill, no Democrat has come forward yet as a co-sponsor.
The revised version of the bill that the committee approved would ensure that milk could only be labeled as non-GMO if the cows are fed non-biotech grain. It would also require FDA to write definitions for labeling foods as “natural.” The regulations for natural foods were included in the original bill introduced this spring but were dropped from a second version circulated in June.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, made up of dozens of food companies and agricultural organizations, said Congress must pass the legislation this year. Vermont passed a mandatory GMO labeling law last year, which is to be implemented in 2016 should it survive a court challenge by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a part of the coalition.
“The consequences of a failure to act will be felt by farmers, food producers and consumers across the country,” said coalition spokeswoman Claire Parker. “The growing support for this bill is evidence that members of Congress understand a patchwork of state labeling laws will impact the jobs and family budgets of their constituents.”
American Soybean Association President Wade Cowan said his organization will meet with every lawmaker representing soybean country to urge them to support the legislation. “It's a bill that moves us closer to a science-based dialogue on food and farm issues,” he said. John Linder, the National Corn Growers Association’s trade policy and biotechnology action team chair, said different requirements for different states would “drive up costs for farmers and consumers alike.”
The bill currently has 69 co-sponsors, including 14 Democrats.
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McGovern echoed the concerns of mandatory labeling advocates like Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the non-profit Just Label It campaign. “I would suggest mandatory GMO labeling to cut through the confusion,” McGovern said. “What we’re doing today is opposite of what constituents want.”
Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., said although he is in favor of a national standard, he is reluctant to pre-empt states in the matter.
“States like Vermont have responded to... concern among constituents,” said Gibson, the only Republican on the Ag Committee to speak against the bill.
During a media call hosted by EWG, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she is “deeply disappointed” in the speedy committee approval of HR 1599, dubbed by opponents as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.
EWG’s Scott Faber said “no one is surprised” by the committee’s action, but that the “real fight will be in the Senate.”
He said in a blog post that labeling laws in 64 other countries “show us that consumers will not view a GMO disclosure as a warning sign.”
Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs of Center for Food Safety, said on the call that any member of Congress supporting the bill “is cementing their position as against states’ rights.”
The groups indicated that they would ramp up opposition to bill as it moves forward. EWG is hosting a petition campaign against the Pompeo bill on its website, featuring an image of the lawmaker wearing a Darth Vader-type helmet next to a banner reading, “Stop the Dark Act!
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