WASHINGTON, July 15, 2015 - A bill to block states from requiring labeling for genetically engineered foods could be on the House floor as soon as next week. The House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599) on a voice vote after a 15-minute business meeting. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration, has joint jurisdiction but it’s expected to waive its right to vote on the bill. That’s important because Energy and Commerce would likely be a less friendly forum for the bill and there might be attempts to amend the measure, which has already gone through several different drafts as supporters tried to address concerns and minimize opposition in the organic industry.

The ranking Democrat on House Agriculture, Collin Peterson, predicts that the bill will have 50 to 60 Democratic votes on the House floor. Heading into Tuesday’s markup, the bill had 14 Democratic cosponsors, including eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus. (CBC members earlier provided critical Democratic support for the bill to repeal the country-of-origin labeling law, or COOL.)

However, the bill will lose some GOP votes. Polls have shown that concern about genetic engineering crosses party lines and appears to be especially strong in the Northeast. Plus, there is the overarching GOP issue of states’ rights. Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican from upstate New York, surprised the bill’s backers by using the markup to announce his opposition to the legislation.

“States like Vermont have responded to that concern among constituents,” Gibson said, referring to Vermont’s state labeling law that is set to take effect next year. “I do agree that a national standard would be better than state standards, but that’s not what’s happening,” Gibson said.

The key question is how this bill becomes law. A presidential veto is unlikely given that the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration have been helping House members draft the legislation. But that still means it would likely take 60 votes to move the bill in the Senate.

One possibility is that the bill gets dropped into an omnibus spending bill late in the year. But supporters say they are still working on passing the bill as a standalone measure.

There is still no Democratic co-sponsor for the companion bill that Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., plans to introduce in the Senate. But supporters have received assurances from an unspecified number of Democratic senators that they support the legislation, even if they don’t want to go as far as putting their name on it. “We got many, many assurances of support,” said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives.

Even if all 54 Republicans were to support the bill, six Democrats would be needed to overcome a filibuster.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., won’t have a hearing on the bill until after the August recess. He’s already got a raft of issues to deal with, including child nutrition reauthorization and COOL.

One of the keys to getting the House this far was to shore up the certification process for labeling non-GMO food, or food made without genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Food industry lobbyists say there’s concern in the organic business that products labeled as non-GMO could be seen by consumers as a cheaper alternative to organics with less stringent definitions and requirements.

One of the final changes made to the bill before the markup was to require that milk labeled as non-GMO be produced from dairy cattle fed only non-GMO grain. The same would apply to non-GMO meat. Another change the organic industry wanted would deem that certified organic products would automatically meet the non-GMO standard.

But the Organic Trade Association (OTA) still has several concerns, including how the bill would align with organic standards and the fact that the bill leaves out fiber (such as cotton), salmon, vitamins, supplements, enzymes, and microorganisms. In a statement on the bill, the group said it opposes the bill as written and that GMO labeling should be left to states but added this interesting qualifier – “absent a federal mandate.” 

The bill would create something like a two-track process for food safety reviews. Genetically engineered crops that are regulated by the Pest Protection Act, enforced by USDA, would essentially require a safety clearance by FDA. The bill would require companies to provide USDA with a letter stating FDA has no objections to the safety of the food. That process would cover a lot of the traditional, transgenic biotech traits such as herbicide tolerance.

But there are an increasing number of traits that don’t fall under the PPA regulation and for those the FDA safety review would remain voluntary, according to House Agriculture aides. Companies routinely seek FDA review for new traits even though it’s not mandatory, however, and the bill is written in a way that FDA could expand the number of traits and engineering methods that would be covered by the voluntary review procedure. The administration is currently conducting a review, pursuant to a July 2 executive order, to determine what those should be.

By leaving the FDA review process as voluntary, backers of the bill could be leaving it open to the line of attack that it’s not doing enough to ensure the safety of biotech foods.

Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said consumers need assurance that FDA is taking the lead in regulating the safety of GMOs. He says the bill no longer does that since being rewritten around USDA’s PPA authority. In his view, FDA “still plays the most minor” role in regulating GMOs in relation to USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency.


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