Inside Washington: Time ticking on GMO labeling solution

Coalition urges Roberts and Stabenow to come forward with bipartisan solution on food labeling dilemma.

A fly ball caught at the wall, still remains an out. This was one of the analogies used to describe the attempt of Senate Agricultural leaders to hit a homerun that is just inches away from being ruled out.

Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said discussions between Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) have moved to a point described as within inches and he said that is an accurate assessment.

“Our encouragement for Roberts and Stabenow is to finish off the final inches,” Conner said. “We need a win. We need them to finish off the small legislative differences that remain.”

As of Thursday, there will be only seven days left on the legislative calendar for Congress to pass a bipartisan solution before Vermont’s mandatory on-package labeling law goes into effect July 1. Failure to find and pass legislation by July 1 will have costly and lasting effects on the nation’s food supply chain, was the message from the Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food.

In a media call Thursday morning, members of the coalition made a final plea to Roberts and Stabenow to reach a solution to enable enough time to avoid the chaos they project will come once Vermont’s law goes into effect.

Conner said since the failed voted on the Senate floor earlier this year, Roberts and Stabenow have been working on a compromise. He said he expects if the two can reach a bipartisan agreement it will deliver the necessary 60 votes to move a solution forward.

Pam Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), said,  “Our intent today is not get between Senate negotiators, but urge them to finish their work today.”

The House only has four legislative days left. Bailey said the coalition remains confident that if a deal can be met quickly Congress will find a way to get the legislation moved in time.

Bailey said the July 1 effective date has already cost the food industry millions. The costs include changes to account for new labeling, supply chain changes, product sourcing changes and potential reformulations.

Bailey also shared that GMA gets calls every day from companies who aren’t even GMA members on how to comply with Vermont’s law because Vermont’s attorney general isn’t able to answer how the law will be implemented. “We expect there will be chaos in the marketplace after July 1 if legislation is not passed,” she said.

Conner said he doesn’t prefer Plan B, but if legislation isn’t passed, it will probably lead to massive reformulations by companies away from perfectly safe American-grown products taken out of the food supply to avoid the Vermont label. He said biotechnology allows for a reduced climate footprint and essentially Vermont’s law would reduce the values associated with those crops. “It is intolerable to think that we would be doing that to the American farmer,” he said.

Leslie G. Sarasin, Food Marketing Institute president and chief executive officer, said Congress has the opportunity to be pro-consumer and provide shoppers information beyond what can just be placed on a label. She said in the digital age shoppers expect customization and a mandatory on-label requirement doesn’t provide that.

She said a 2016 shopping trend survey indicated 20% of shoppers already scan QR codes on grocery items and 36% are interested in doing more of it. “This trend demonstrates the increased role and diversity of ways shoppers can obtain information about products,” she said.

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