WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - After a week-long recess, Congress has just over 30 working days left to enact a law that would stop Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law from taking effect. No agreement on a preemption bill has yet to emerge, and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow insist their staffs continue to work on a deal.

“We’re doing our part. We’re spending a tremendous amount of staff time on it,” Stabenow told Agri-Pulse on Tuesday.

In a sign that biotechnology opponents fear the talks are progressing, the advocacy group Center for Food Safety posted on its Twitter feed a preemptive strike on a possible agreement. Stabenow is “likely introducing new #DARKAct soon w/ discriminatory QR codes,” the tweet says. The “DARK Act” is a reference to legislation that would preempt GMO labeling laws. The group also set up a web page urging GMO labeling proponents to call Stabenow’s offices. 

Here’s a look at some of the key issues that senators and industry sources say remain unsettled:

Mandatory disclosure. The food industry has generally accepted the idea, pushed by Stabenow, that companies be required to provide something on the label that allows consumers to tell whether a product contains biotech ingredients.

The American Farm Bureau Federation still opposes mandatory disclosure. Its official policy is that disclosure must be voluntary, but AFBF’s top lobbyist, Dale Moore, told Agri-Pulse the group would consider a mandatory plan once there is a deal that he can present to the organization’s leadership. 

Roberts, meanwhile, said he still is concerned about the ability of small food processors to comply with such a requirement. 

On-package labeling or not? Proponents of GMO labeling, and their Democratic allies, argue that there has to be some kind of wording or symbol on food labels, not just via smartphone or QR code, the preferred disclosure method for food companies. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association can’t accept a requirement for on-package GMO labeling, says Karin Moore, GMA’s vice president and general counsel. “We feel it would be stigmatizing,” she said. 

The Farm Bureau has the same concern, but Dale Moore didn’t rule out considering such a requirement. “I can’t say that’s a nonstarter.” But he said, “Our concern is that a label in and of itself could be viewed – or could be pushed by others to be seen – as a symbol that somehow that food is not safe.” 

GMA member Campbell Soup Co. dissents from the association’s position. Campbell is already voluntarily labeling and is currently testing wording that would specify that FDA affirms the safety of GMOs. The idea is to present that wording to the government agency that would be put in charge of writing rules for disclosure. If Congress doesn’t act, the company will ask Vermont to consider changing its required wording. 

Exemption for animal products. The meat and dairy industry want the bill to make clear that meat and milk won’t have to be labeled when the animals providing those products are fed genetically engineered feed. Stabenow said she had provided language on that issue to Roberts. He called the issue “a work in progress.” 

Definition of GMOs. This is a potentially huge issue for biotech developers and the future of the technology. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s preemption bill, which has been stalled since March, would have tightly defined “bioengineering” to mean transgenic crops into which genetic material has been inserted from another species. That could leave gene editing and other new techniques out of any disclosure or labeling requirements. 

Campbell Soup’s top lobbyist, Kelly Johnston, says he expects the final bill will include a “relatively narrow definition” of biotechnology.

Who’s in charge? Roberts says that the Agriculture Department, not the Food and Drug Administration, must be put in charge of writing rules for whatever disclosure or labeling program emerges. Assigning the job to USDA would ensure that the law is under the jurisdiction of the Senate and House agriculture committees. Other committees oversee FDA – Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the Senate, and Energy and Commerce in the House.  

Even as the senators and aides try to work out these issues, there is still the unknown of how and when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on the food industry’s pending challenge to the Vermont law. The court could have stayed the Vermont law if it was likely to rule against it. 

“They could be waiting for a federal solution,” said GMA’s Moore, speaking at a recent conference of food industry lawyers. “They could be waiting for Vermont’s law to actually take effect.”


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