On Tuesday (July 14), the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would prohibit states from enacting GMO-labeling requirements for food. Passed out of committee on a voice vote, the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) could see the House floor as early as the week of July 20.
“As this Committee has repeatedly observed, the keys to success in any marketing venture are voluntary participation, robust, transparent and meaningful standards, and comprehensive enforcement to ensure compliance,” said Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the committee. “The legislation before us hits all of these marks.”
Conaway was backed Minnesota Rep. Colin Peterson, ranking member. “In March, the Committee held a hearing to review mandatory biotechnology laws. At that hearing I expressed hope that we could find a workable solution that would alleviate the potential mess of 50 states with 50 different labeling schemes.
“H.R. 1599 addresses these concerns by establishing a voluntary, nationwide labeling program. The bill gives USDA significant involvement which, given their past successes with the organic program, simply makes sense. The organic industry, in fact, will have immediate access to the new labeling program.”
The bill comes following the passage of a GMO food labeling law in Vermont that is set to go into effect in the summer of 2016. Other states are considering similar legislation.
The potential mass of competing labeling requirements across the country offers federal lawmakers an easy talking point: if allowed to go forward, interstate commerce would be threatened.
The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) were among groups pleased with the legislation’s passage. “The House Agriculture Committee has taken an important step in moving forward legislation to ensure that farmer co-ops, their producer-owners and other agribusinesses have the certainty of a uniform, national standard when it comes to labeling foods made with biotech-derived ingredients,” said Chuck Conner, NCFC President and CEO. “H.R. 1599 would eliminate the possibility of a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, something that would increase costs and reduce choices for both farmers and consumers.”
The NCFC pointed out the legislation will:
- Enhance coordination between the FDA and the USDA in the biotechnology approval process.
- Strengthen confidence in the safety of genetically engineered foods by requiring developers to receive written FDA notification that any questions on food safety have been resolved before introduction of new bio-engineered products into the marketplace.
- Provide consumers greater transparency and confidence by establishing a public web site listing all bioengineered plants.
GMO labeling of food was also the topic of a June 18 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health (http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/national-framework-review-and-labeling-biotechnology-foodhearing).
During the hearing, Gregory Jaffe, Biotechnology Project Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said “the proposed genetic engineering certification and labeling system proposed by H.R. 1599 … would be a good step forward. It would require USDA to establish a non-GMO labeling system with uniform definitions and verified label claims. While CSPI believes there is no benefit to consumers from avoiding foods that contain ingredients from GE crops, CSPI understands that some consumers do want to buy such foods. The system that would be implemented at USDA if Congress passed H.R. 1599 would go a long way toward uniform labels with verifiable, non-misleading claims.”
Pushback came from Todd Daloz, Vermont assistant attorney general, who said the law passed only after significant fact-finding and a two-year debate. “One of the primary roles of states in our federal system is to act, to paraphrase Justice Brandeis, as laboratories of democracy to develop ‘novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’
“That is what Vermont has done in requiring the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. Our primary concern with the draft legislation before you today is that it would prematurely end all state efforts to require labeling -- before Vermont’s labeling law even takes effect -- without offering a substantive federal requirement in its place.
“Vermonters, reflecting consumers across the United States, overwhelmingly support the factual disclosure that food has been produced using genetic engineering.”
Among those displeased with the committee’s action is the Environmental Working Group who has labeled the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” – or DARK -- Act.
Groups happy with H.R. 1599’s progress include:
- The National Corn Growers Association.
“The House and Senate must pass federal legislation this year; the continued threat of an unworkable patchwork of state GMO labeling mandates will drive up costs for farmers and consumers alike,” said John Linder, NCGA Trade Policy and Biotechnology Action Team chair. “Next July, Vermont’s state labeling law is set to take effect. The looming impacts of this situation increase the urgency of the need for Congress to act on a national labeling law.”
- The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.
“Today’s committee approval of this legislation is a strong sign of the support for national food labeling legislation that gives consumers the information they want in a truthful, consistent manner, and we call on the full House to vote on this important bill before the August recess,” said Claire Parker, spokesperson for CFSAF. “The consequences of a failure to act will be felt by farmers, food producers and consumers across the country. The growing support for this bill is evidence that members of Congress understand a patchwork of state labeling laws will impact the jobs and family budgets of their constituents.”
- The American Soybean Association.
"Consumers continue to demand more transparency and accountability from food producers,” said Wade Cowan, ASA president and a soybean farmer from Brownfield, Texas. “This bill ensures that a multi-state patchwork of state regulations is avoided, as the wide range of potential individual and conflicting non-GMO labeling schemes."