Inside Washington: State GMO labeling initiatives advance

New York advances its own GMO labeling initiative, while Vermont's start date looms.

This week, members of New York’s Assembly Codes Committee and Assembly Ways & Means Committee voted to advance legislation to enact mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients in New York. Neighboring Vermont has passed a genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling law that goes into effect in July — but the requirements of that statute do not match the requirements laid out in New York’s A.617B.

“It’s unfortunate to see some members of the state Assembly giving in to junk science and scare tactics by advancing legislation that is intended to further misinform the public about genetic engineering and the safe role it plays in our current and future food supply,” said Rick Zimmerman, executive director of the Northeast Agribusiness & Feed Alliance.

If enacted, this would create the exact chaos that the food industry has warned about in its push for a national framework rather than a patchwork approach to GMO labeling. The food industry has long warned that mandatory labeling will cause foods costs to rise and potentially will reduce the availability of some products. New York’s law also imposes burdensome recordkeeping and paperwork requirements on retailers, which the Vermont bill does not.

"If GMO labeling is going to happen, it needs to stay in the jurisdiction of the Food & Drug Administration,” said Michael Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State. “Individual state laws are going to create chaos for every step of the food distribution chain, and that chaos will mean higher prices for consumers.”

A 2014 Cornell University study determined that food costs for a family of four would increase an average of $500 per year due to the proposed mandatory labeling legislation. The state-borne costs to enforce mandatory labeling provisions may be in the millions of dollars. States such as California and Oregon have, in the past, concluded this fact in response to earlier failed ballot initiatives. Oregon’s proposal was estimated to cost taxpayers $7 million to establish the program and upwards of $11 million annually to administer and enforce it.

A report released just last month by the National Academy of Sciences reaffirmed the safety of GMO products. The exhaustive study took more than two years to conduct and included input from more than 50 scientists, researchers and industry experts reviewing nearly 900 studies dating back two decades to when GMO products were first introduced to the market.

“The farming industry is one that has continued to evolve and incorporate new technology to improve production methods and environmental stewardship in New York state,” said Jeff Williams, public policy director at the New York Farm Bureau. “Forced GMO labeling is more about casting unnecessary doubt over the safety of these products than informing the public and poses a threat to the future success of the agriculture industry in our state.”

Meanwhile, a national solution continues to allude Senate Republicans and Democrats. Reports indicate that Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) continue to be supportive of a GMO labeling solution but have been unable to find one that meets the wishes of each party to obtain the 60 votes needed in the Senate and could still pass in the House.

Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., and Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, released a statement this week calling on Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow to quickly find compromise on a path forward for potential GMO labeling legislation prior to the implementation of Vermont’s state labeling law on July 1. Bailey and Conner serve as the co-chairs of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food.

"It is imperative that Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow reach an agreement this week on the biotech labeling bill. There is simply no more time for a compromise to be reached,” wrote Bailey and Conner.

“The issues are well defined, have been fully debated, and now it is time to get in a room and reach a final deal.  We are confident that a Roberts-Stabenow compromise will get 60 votes in the Senate and will be passed by the House before the Vermont law goes into effect on July 1.  However, for this to happen a Roberts-Stabenow compromise must be reached this week.  We and the 800 other Coalition member organizations nationwide stand ready to support the compromise once announced and work for rapid passage. The clock is ticking louder by the day and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the agriculture and food industry.”

Vermont’s law goes into effect July 1.

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