WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2016 - The biotech labeling negotiations led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack broke down over whether GMOs had to be disclosed on food labels or whether it would be enough to ensure that electronic disclosure would be adequate to serve consumers, he says. 

Vilsack, testifying before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday, made his first public comments about two days of meetings last month with representatives of organic companies and conventional food manufacturers. 

“We did make progress in our conversations, we just didn’t get to the last issue,” Vilsack said. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association is lobbying Congress to preempt state GMO labeling laws and to allow food companies to disclose biotech ingredients on the web and through a smartphone-based system called SmartLabel. 

The talks never resolved what else might be required, Vilsack said. 

“Do you then put something on the front of the package or the back of the package that says ‘GMO’; … or do you survey consumers to find out if they know how to use this information, if they’re interested in it? And if you show a substantial number of consumers already knowledgeable, then the question is what is the necessity of putting something on the package?

“I think that’s kind of where our conversation broke apart. It’s something that Congress  is going to have to address.”

The first state labeling requirements take effect in Vermont this summer, and Vilsack warned that the law is going to create “uncertainty and confusion in the market,” as well as increased consumer costs. 

The House passed a bill last summer that would have blocked such laws, but the industry has so far been unable to find enough Democratic support to move similar legislation in the Senate. 

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Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, has been preparing to release a bill to increase pressure on uncommitted Democrats. “Stay tuned,” he said Thursday, when asked when it would be introduced. 

The top Democrat on the committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, told Agri-Pulse that she was working on a resolution.  “I think we’re going to have to come up with a compromise,” she said. 

The chairman of the House subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told Vilsack that his department needs to step up its public education efforts to assure consumers of the safety of genetically engineered crops.

Vilsack said the industry needed to do more on its own and that he expected a more “aggressive effort from this point forward.”