WASHINGTON, July 13, 2016 - A landmark bill mandating disclosure of genetically engineered food ingredients should be headed to President Obama’s desk by the end of the week. The House is expected to give final congressional approval to the Senate-passed legislation on Thursday.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview that they expect the bill to pass easily with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. “Now that the Senate Democrats are for it that will bring a bunch of people,” said Peterson. The bill passed the Senate 63-30, with the support of 21 Democrats.

More than 1,100 food and agriculture groups and companies signed a letter urging the House to pass the bill, and their lobbying has had an impact, said Conaway. “The folks who want this have done a pretty good job of urging members to support this. The Farm Bureau is out there. All the producers are calling members,” he said.

No amendments will be allowed, under terms of a rule for the debate approved Tuesday by the House Rules Committee. The no-amendment rule was critical because any changes to the bill would send the legislation back to the Senate, and Congress will be out of session after this week until September.

Neither Conaway nor Peterson is particularly enthusiastic about the bill. Both preferred to make GMO disclosure voluntary, and both lawmakers have misgivings about the discretion it gives the Agriculture Department.

The bill would give USDA two years to write a rule that among other things would implement a definition for what ingredients and breeding techniques are covered under the legislation. USDA’s general counsel said in a letter to the ranking Democrat of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, that the definition could cover highly refined ingredients such as oils and also would cover a broad range of bioengineering techniques.

When USDA has broad discretion in writing regulations, they will vary depending on “whoever has the ear of the USDA folks who are doing this at the time it gets done,” said Conaway.

USDA also must set definitions of “small” and “very small” businesses and set a limit for the amount of a biotech material in a product that makes it subject to disclosure. In addition, the department will have to do a study of consumer access to electronic information. Once the study is done, the department may require, for example, that grocery stores provide a landline for shoppers to call food makers for information about biotech ingredients, Conaway said.

Peterson said he expects Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to start work on the rule before President Obama leaves office in January, which would give the next administration a head start. “He’s put a bunch of time into this already… He’s really into this issue,” said Peterson.

USDA has been providing technical advice while both the Senate bill and an earlier House version were under development, and the department’s general counsel provided a letter to Conaway as well as the one to Stabenow addressing concerns as to how the bill would be interpreted. A July 8 letter to Conaway assured him that the legislation would immediately preempt Vermont's GMO labeling mandate, which took effect July 1, and bar any other states from imposing requirements that differ from the new federal standards.

Conaway told the Rules Committee that the House had no choice but to accept the Senate bill as is, given that Vermont’s mandatory labeling law is now in effect. “The Senate ran the clock out on purpose,” he said.


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