WASHINGTON, April 6, 2016 - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow say they’re committed to passing legislation that would preempt state GMO labeling laws. But moves by food companies to start labeling their products may embolden Democrats to insist on a national requirement for some kind of on-package labeling. 

Stabenow, D-Mich., told Agri-Pulse that she hoped to have a new proposal by today (April 6). She didn’t disclose what it would entail. Before the Easter recess some Democrats were floating the idea of a requiring either a symbol or a special phone number, which would be accompanied by wording on how consumers could get information about genetically engineered ingredients. 

Such on-package labeling has been a non-starter for the industry because of concerns that it would stigmatize biotechnology and lead companies to reformulate products to remove genetically engineered ingredients. But Stabenow suggests that the labeling plans by major companies such as General Mills and Kellogg indicate those fears may be unfounded.

“I’ve had long conversations with them. They don’t believe it’s a problem,” Stabenow said of the companies.  

Asked if those labeling announcements are changing the Senate debate, she said, “I think people would be surprised that most foods are genetically modified. FDA has said it’s safe and I think we need to find a way to just provide information that doesn’t hurt agriculture.” 

“I certainly don’t think it’s going to hurt” the technology, she said of labeling.

A biotech bill has been stalled in the Senate since Democrats blocked a cloture motion March 16. Roberts, a Kansas Republican, and Stabenow didn’t talk about the bill at all during the two-week recess, but they discussed other pending issues on the Senate floor Monday evening. Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who discussed the issue with Stabenow after Roberts did, said she suggested some possible ideas for a compromise. He said he would be running the proposals by GOP colleagues. 

Roberts is still worried about the possibility of companies moving away from GMOs. General Mills, in fact, hasn’t ruled out changing its ingredients at some point, although the company says it now has no plans to do so. 

Any compromise that mandates biotech labeling risks losing Republican support, Roberts says. 

“If we get legislation that attracts allegedly 10 to 20 Democrats, it will probably be legislation that will cost me the same amount on the other side. Something has got to give here,” he told Agri-Pulse.


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