WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2016 - Representatives of food and agriculture industry groups were expected to meet today at the behest of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who says he wants to find a resolution on the biotech labeling issue. No details of the meeting have been released publicly, but Vilsack told the American Farm Bureau Federation that he would communicate the “context and tenor” of the meeting to leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees afterwards. 

Leaders of both committees have been warning about an emerging patchwork of state labeling laws, starting with a Vermont law set to take effect in July, if Congress doesn’t intervene. “The stakes are huge,” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said. “Other jurisdictions will begin to create their own individual standards. Thats just untenable for interstate commerce.”

The Campbell Soup Co. cited the Vermont law in announcing last week that it would start labeling its products for biotech ingredients and was pulling out of the industry coalition that is lobbying for legislation to preempt state labeling laws. Some of Campbell’s best-selling products have traditionally contained ingredients such as vegetable oils, soy protein and high fructose corn syrup that are commonly derived from biotech crops.

It’s too early to tell how many other states will begin considering similar laws this year, since legislatures are just getting their 2016 sessions under way. But efforts already are underway to pass pending bills in New York and Massachusetts.

Maine and Connecticut already have laws on the books similar to Vermont’s but those statutes, unlike Vermont’s, are contingent on neighboring states enacting similar requirements.

“Were going full steam ahead on the campaign for labeling in New York,” said Alex Beauchamp, northeast regional director for Food and Water Watch. “The session just started last week, and were excited to have a big field presence this spring, including several organizers working on the bill across the state,” he told Agri-Pulse.  Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Sen. Ken LaValle of Long Island are sponsoring identical bills in the state Assembly and Senate.

In Massachusetts, the Campbell’s announcement has added momentum behind a bill that is co-sponsored by 155 of 200 state lawmakers and 12 of the 16 members of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG), an advocacy group.

The committee has until March 3 to move the measure, under a rule that requires bills be moved through committee by a certain date in order to be considered by the full legislature. “We are continuing to talk to the committee and bill sponsors in the House and Senate, and they are all interested in moving the bill,” Cummings told Agri-Pulse. The “expectation is they will move a bill soon.”

The New York legislation, the Massachusetts bill and the Vermont law contain differing definitions of “genetic engineering,” as well as conflicting labeling requirements.

The Vermont law, which the Campbell labels will follow, requires labels to say “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.”

The New York legislation would require labels to say “produced with genetic engineering” and would allow use of the terms “GE,” “GM,” or “GMO.” The Massachusetts version would require manufacturers to say “Genetically Engineered” or “Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, doesn’t think any new laws are imminent. “The other New England states could be the only ones,” he said. “I think we have a chance in both” New York and Massachusetts,” but it would take a couple of years.”

His group has long been the leading opponent of agricultural biotechnology, using the courts and most recently airing television ads fighting the federal preemption effort. The most recent round of commercials started airing Sunday in Washington, D.C., and in states of targeted lawmakers.

The industry-backed Coalition for Safe Affordable Food is launching a counter-advertising campaign. The coalition ad says that state labeling laws “threaten family farms” and would increase family food bills by $500 a year. “If Congress does nothing, farmers and families will pay the price,” the ad concludes.


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