WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - The clock is fast running out on the Senate to stop Vermont’s GMO labeling law from taking effect July 1. The chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee both tell Agri-Pulse they want to get an agreement, but some of the same issues that were in play last month were still unresolved as the senators returned from their week-long Memorial Day recess. 

Publicly at least, ranking member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is putting pressure on Chairman Pat Roberts. She said on Tuesday that it’s up to him to get the GOP votes needed to pass a labeling bill. Asked about the possibility of getting an agreement this week, Stabenow said, “I think it’s very important to do that for agriculture and consumers. The No. 1 question is, will the Republican caucus support a nationwide mandatory policy, and that seems to be the question at this point.” 

She didn’t say how many Democratic votes she could produce. Sixty votes from both sides are needed to move the bill. In March, six Republicans in addition to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted against advancing a labeling preemption bill, while just three Democrats supported it. (McConnell voted against the cloture motion, which failed 48-49, so that he could bring the legislation back if Roberts and Stabenow reach agreement.)

Roberts and Stabenow discussed the legislation during votes on the Senate floor Tuesday. Roberts told Agri-Pulse afterwards they were both trying to find enough support in their parties. “The whole issue is whether we both think we can get 60 votes,” he said. He declined to say how many GOP votes he thought he could get.

For Roberts, the outstanding issues include the treatment of small, regional businesses under disclosure requirements, and the extent of an exemption for meat products. According to sources familiar with the negotiations, there is agreement that meat and dairy products wouldn’t be considered GMOs just because the animals were fed biotech feed. However, the meat industry also wants to exempt from disclosure requirements processed food products that contain meat, even if the products also have a biotech ingredient such as high fructose corn syrup.

Roberts, R-Kan., also wants to ensure that the courts couldn’t be used to mandate on-package labeling. The bill he and Stabenow have been negotiating is expected to mandate that companies provide a method of disclosing the presence of biotech ingredients, a requirement that is hard for some conservative Republicans to swallow. 

Randy Russell, who has been leading the industry’s lobbying effort, says it’s crucial to get an agreement finalized this week in order to have time to get it enacted before July. Otherwise, the next chance to pass the legislation could be in a lame duck session after the November election, he said. 

“The issues are clear, have been fully debated, and a deal is clearly in sight,” Russell said. “I am confident that a Roberts-Stabenow agreement will get the 60 votes necessary to clear the Senate and will be passed by the House. But if we’re going to get this done prior to the July 1 implementation date for the Vermont law, a compromise has to be reached this week.”

Russell said he was confident “that there is a meaningful compromise to be reached” on all three of the outstanding issues. 

Pamela Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and Chuck Conner, who heads up the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said in a joint statement that the industry coalition pushing for a preemption bill stands “ready to support the compromise once announced and work for rapid passage.” Bailey and Conner co-chair the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which represents 54 national trade associations in the food and agriculture sectors. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, remained skeptical Tuesday that a deal could be reached based on what he knew of the state of the negotiations before Memorial Day. He blamed Democrats for being unwilling to give on GMO labeling. “It’s an emotional issue with a lot of people and it’s just difficult under those circumstances to get a compromise,” he told reporters.


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