Inside Washington: GMO deal still faces tough timeline

Sens. Roberts and Stabenow forge bipartisan agreement in hopes of holding off chaos of Vermont labeling law.

Leave it to Congress to reach important deals in just the nick of time. For those pushing to prevent the patchwork of state and local labeling requirements for food that may contain genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients, Sens. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) squeezed out a solution Thursday afternoon, just a week before the Vermont labeling law begins but with only a few legislative calendar days left for Congress to hold votes and get a bill to the President’s desk.

The Senate is scheduled to begin its July 4 recess on July 1, and the House is set to recess next week and doesn’t return until July 5. Roberts’ staff told Feedstuffs that they are working with the Senate majority leader on getting time on the full Senate floor for a vote, but no timeline has been set yet.

Vermont’s law is set to go into effect July 1, but it will not be enforced until January. So, there is some wiggle room, but everyone is, of course, urging quick action.

National Grain & Feed Assn. president Randy Gordon urged other senators to join in an expedited effort to approve a final version of the language released Thursday.

"We appreciate Sens. Roberts and Stabenow for the efforts they have made in trying to achieve bipartisan consensus on a way forward, but time is of the essence," Gordon said. "We hope both the House and Senate can come together expeditiously to pass a national labeling standard that will prevent harmful disruptions in the nation's supply chain."

Congressional action is needed to avert major supply chain disruptions and inefficiencies in production, storage, transportation, manufacturing and distribution of food and feed that would translate into significant cost increases for consumers.

American Soybean Assn. first vice president Ron Moore, a soybean farmer from Roseville, Ill., added that nothing will be accomplished from a ceremonial effort. “What we need is a piece of legislation that can pass, and in today’s Congress, that means a bipartisan compromise," he said. "There are 30 soybean-growing states in the U.S.: That’s the 60 votes we need to pass the bill in the Senate. The chairman and the ranking member have a comprehensive bill that both Republicans and Democrats can support, and we will call on every one of the soy state senators to back this farmer priority.”

What the deal does

Roberts had attempted to establish a voluntary GMO labeling scheme that would be certified by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The final deal creates a mandatory system of disclosure using at least one of three labeling options: a phrase indicating that the product contains genetically modified food, an on-pack symbol or a QR or bar code that consumers could scan with their smartphones.

It also pre-empts states or other entities from mandating labels and would have USDA establish, through rule-making, a uniform national disclosure standard for human food that is or may be bioengineered.

Foods where meat, poultry and egg products are the main ingredient are exempt.

For animal agriculture, the deal clearly stipulates that milk and meat from animals that consume feed grown from biotech seeds are not subject to the labeling disclosure provisions. The legislation prohibits the secretary of agriculture from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten feed containing GMOs.

“This is an important commonsense provision. Milk and meat are not genetically modified just because the cows consume biotech feed, just like humans are not genetically modified by consuming foods derived from biotechnology,” said Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, which argued strongly for this provision throughout the negotiation process.

The agreement also closes glaring loopholes under the Vermont law that would have allowed tens of thousands of processed food products, like frozen dinners or entrees that contain meat and GMO ingredients, to go unlabeled. Under the law in Vermont, for example, a cheese pizza could be labeled but a pepperoni pizza could not, even if it contained a GMO ingredient.

Additionally, Stabenow fought for important provisions to maintain the integrity of the nation’s organic program. Although organic products have always been non-GMO, this agreement ensures that organic producers can clearly display a “non-GMO” label in addition to the organic seal to provide additional information to consumers about the food they eat. 

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