WASHINGTON, March 30, 2016 - Even as a bill has stalled in the Senate for national biotech labeling, activists in several Northeastern states are pushing to get mandatory GMO bills passed before their legislatures adjourn. Although the bills are similar to a Vermont law, set to take effect in July, they aren’t necessarily identical. That means there could still be significant pressure on the Senate to act on a bill to preempt state labeling laws this month even as food companies start printing the labels necessary to comply with the Vermont law. 

A Massachusetts bill, which was approved by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture earlier this month, would impose labeling requirements if surrounding states enact similar laws. Connecticut already has a labeling requirement with a similar provision, but there is an effort in the legislature to strip the trigger.

A pair of words in the Massachusetts bill points to challenges that a patchwork of state labeling laws could pose for food companies as well as the seed industry and farmers. The bill’s definition of genetic engineering includes the term “gene deletion,” a reference to gene editing, which doesn’t appear to be covered by the Vermont law, said Mike Gruber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. 

Existing biotech crop traits, often called “transgenic,” have generally involved inserting bacterium genes into plants to make them immune to herbicides or toxic to pests.

“Those definitions are critical,” said Gruber. “It looks like Massachusetts is looking into the future in whatever would be required to have a label.”

A key provision in the Senate legislation would require USDA to set national standards for disclosure of biotech ingredients and limit the techniques that would be covered. The Massachusetts bill also has different record-keeping requirements for retailers. 

Tara Cook-Littman, a GMO labeling activist, says there “is a very high probability” that Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as Rhode Island could pass labeling bills this year. The Connecticut legislature wraps up in May, but lawmakers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are in session until June and July, respectively. 

Cook-Littman, who is on the board of Citizens for GMO Labeling, said she expected the bills to be altered during the legislative process to bring them in line with Vermont’s “to create an easy path of compliance for manufacturers.”

“I am not concerned that these efforts could push the federal government to preempt the states,” she said. “To the contrary, state action should drive the federal government to do the right thing and pass a law that mirrors what the states have done.”

Food companies have continued to call for national standards even as they have announced plans to comply with the Vermont law. “With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever,” said ConAgra Foods. “That’s why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible.”


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