Establishing a national framework for the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) took another step forward with the introduction Friday of a bill by Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) to help find a path forward on the issue before Vermont’s labeling law goes into effect this July.
The bill instructs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a set of standards within two years for labeling foods that do contain or may contain bioengineering and to conduct an outreach and education campaign on the safety of bioengineered food. Additionally, the bill would pre-empt a patchwork of conflicting labeling laws at the state level.
“Increased costs associated with this law may force companies to have to segregate their products, facilities, etc., in order to remain in the Vermont market,” Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said in recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. “I think we can deal with this by respecting the safety of GMOs while addressing the consumer’s right to know.”
Vilsack held meetings in an attempt to see what common ground existed among different sides of the issue but then walked away from the talks without any agreement reached.
Agricultural groups were quick to compliment Roberts for the bill's introduction, saying it was a fair resolution for both agriculture and consumers as it provides consistency in the marketplace.
Brian Baenig, Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) executive vice president of food and agriculture, said the bill advances a commonsense solution to the GMO food labeling issue that protects the nation’s farmers, consumers, grocers and small businesses.
“We want consumers to know more about food and farming, but that information needs to be truthful and conveyed in a way that doesn’t stigmatize beneficial farming methods such as biotechnology,” Baenig said. “Tools such as the SmartLabel, QR codes, 1-800 numbers and other educational resources can deliver an abundance of information about food ingredients, nutrition, allergens, product usage, brand information and more.”
Richard Wilkins, American Soybean Assn. president, said, “As growers, our primary concern is the ability to continue to produce food in the quantity and of the quality that American consumers demand, and we are acutely aware of consumers’ desire for us to reduce our impact on the environment in the process. This is the dual promise of bioengineering. It has been proven safe repeatedly for nearly 20 years, and we can’t stand by while a small subset of activists willfully misinterprets and misrepresents bioengineering to advance their agenda.”
“We commend Chairman Roberts for his work, and we will work with offices on both sides of the aisle to underscore just how important a national solution is in advance of the Vermont law,” Wilkins added.
The National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA) urged other senators to join Roberts in an expedited effort to introduce and approve a final version of such legislation. "We commend Sen. Roberts and his staff, as well as other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, for the extraordinary efforts they have made in trying to achieve bipartisan consensus on a way forward, but time is of the essence," NGFA president Randy Gordon said. "We hope the significant step taken by Sen. Roberts will galvanize congressional efforts to get federal pre-emption legislation on biotech labeling enacted. The time for action is at hand."
Gordon added that if states create different labeling rules, food and feed manufacturers would be forced to either not serve that market or transfer the heavy costs of compliance to consumers. Studies show that labeling products containing GMOs will cost American families up to $500 more in groceries annually, with low-income families bearing the brunt of the changes.
Leah Wilkinson, American Feed Industry Assn. vice president of legislative, regulatory and state affairs, said although animal food is exempt from Vermont’s law, the industry supports a uniform, national labeling standard for products containing genetically modified ingredients.
"If Congress implements a national law requiring a uniformed standard like what is contained in this bill, the food industry, animal food industry, farmers and consumers will share equal protection from unnecessary costs and different state mandated labeling requirements," Wilkinson said.