WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2015 - Serious talks are under way in the Senate on legislation to block states from enforcing GMO labeling laws. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, tells Agri-Pulse there are a lot of good discussions going on, emphasizing that the legislation will be different from the bill that passed the House this summer.

Fifty different states with 50 different labels is not workable, certainly. I think it means we have to work together on something, Stabenow said.

According to sources, Stabenow is leading a group of five to 10 Democrats that have stepped up the discussions because of growing concerns in the food industry about a law set to take effect in Vermont next July.

As one source put it, theres a growing sense of urgency in the Senate as companies begin to plan for how to deal with the Vermont law. Weve known all along that the Senate bill was going to be different than the House, but there is a pathway forward, this source said. 

One way to enact a labeling bill is to drop it in the omnibus spending bill lawmakers need to pass in December, but that doesnt leave a lot of time for Senate negotiations.

The discussions have included the concept of disclosing biotech ingredients in the label bar codes, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. Thats an idea the industry has been pursuing on a voluntary basis with the endorsement of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Also included in the discussions are the respective regulatory roles of USDA and FDA.

Were working on a concept where we can have good bipartisan support, sponsorship, for the legislation and get well more than 60 votes, the threshold for moving a bill in the Senate, Hoeven said. Thats what we have to have. Thats what were working on.

The Senate Agriculture Committee scheduled a key hearing on biotechnology issue today, the first the panel has held on the issue since June 2005. Ostensibly, the hearing was designed to build a case for the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - the lead witnesses will be senior regulatory officials at USDA, FDA and EPA - but the labeling issue couldnt be avoided.

Also on the witness list was Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who planned to urge the senators to use any labeling bill to make mandatory the FDAs pre-market approval process for new GMOs. Its currently voluntary. It would essentially become mandatory under the House bill, since USDA would require a company to go through the FDA safety review before a crop could be commercialized. But Jaffe argues that the system will be stronger if the FDA review is made mandatory in the law.

A source familiar with the Senate discussions says that making the FDA review mandatory doesnt appear to be a top priority on the Hill. But CSPI is an influential consumer advocacy group, so Jaffe is someone the industry may want have on board.

Last Friday, six other consumer groups sent a letter to Stabenow and the committee chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., essentially complaining that they were left off the witness list.

To ensure that the committee is adequately informed of these concerns, we urge you to invite at least one representative of the numerous consumer organizations who support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food to testify at this hearing, the letter said. The groups: Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association and U.S. PIRG.


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