House ag committee advances GMO labeling bill

Agricultural groups urge floor action ahead of August recess.

Tuesday morning during a business meeting the House Agriculture Committee voted favorably to advance legislation to the House floor that creates a framework for the voluntary labeling of GMO-free foods.

As state legislatures and ballot initiatives have developed labeling standards, Congressional leaders have said it’s needed to step in to create a national standard and take out the confusion that’s created from a piecemeal approach. The bipartisan Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act from lead sponsors Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) currently has 68 cosponsors.

It also requires FDA to proposed definitions of “natural” food within 18 months and these definitions would cover wording such as what can be classified as “100% natural” and “all natural” and “made with natural ingredients.”

In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee, multiple representatives of the food and agricultural sectors commented on the cost burden that would be placed on the food system if the 50 States, more than 3000 counties and nearly 20,000 towns and cities in the United States were allowed to establish their own laws regulating interstate commerce.  

Many changes have transpired over the past several months in an attempt to build on needs and concerns expressed. The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on a version introduced in March; a discussion draft released last month by the Energy and Commerce Committee; and finally the version approved Tuesday as an amendment in the nature of a substitute. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration provided technical assistance and both organic and conventional constituent groups as well as food processors, distributors, scientists and consumers provided input into the final version.

The bill specifically utilizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service to provide consumers verified information about genetic engineering in much the same way they provide information about organic production methods.

During a House Agriculture biotechnology subcommittee hearing the subcommittee concluded the AMS has the resources and expertise to develop and administer a marketing program for those consumers who wish to identify the presence or absence of genetically engineered ingredients in their products. However, House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway (R., Texas) said,
“What the agency doesn’t have is the law to make it work uniformly across the country like we did 25 years ago when we passed the Organic Foods Production Act.”

AMS has already developed the first Process Verified Program claim for non-GMO/GE food products. Recently SunOpta had asked AMS to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products were not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such. In a letter to employees May 1, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had said that AMS worked with that company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.

Chairman of the subcommittee on biotechnology Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) said just as consumers can go to the grocery store and identify organic products, this bill will allow them to do the same with GMO-free products.

The House bill was revised to ensure milk could be certified as non-GMO only if the cows are fed non-GMO grain and similar language would apply to non-GMO meat.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) opposed the bill during committee debate as well as Rep. Chris Gibson (R., N.Y.). because their constituents are asking for more information about their food and a voluntary system “goes against what a majority of Americans want,” McGovern said.

Both agreed a national standard is better than state standards, but it should be a national standard mandating the labeling. “States will continue to put pressure on us to do more,” McGovern said. “Anyone thinking we’re putting this to rest, we’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Agricultural groups welcomed the passage and urged for quick passage on the House floor ahead of the August recess.

“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 National Corn Growers Assn. trade policy and biotechnology action team chair John Linder, a farmer from Ohio. “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.”

Wade Cowan, American Soybean Assn. president, shared the legislation brings clarity to the GMO labeling debate.  "It's clear that consumers want practical solutions that give them the confidence they want in their food, and this legislation does exactly that. In the coming weeks, we'll meet with every lawmaker in soybean country to urge them to support this legislation. It's a bill that moves us closer to a science-based dialogue on food and farm issues, and we will encourage every member of the House to get behind it," he said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill does away with labeling schemes that would “stigmatize foods based on nothing more than the way in which they were developed.” He called the bill the “antidote to anti-GMO initiatives” and restores reason to the food discussion.

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