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Roberts, Stabenow reach GMO labeling deal

Compromise allows for three labeling options to indicate if a product contains genetically modified food.

Mere days before Vermont’s biotechnology food labeling law is set to go into effect, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) reached a compromise Thursday that would create three labeling options: (1) a phrase indicating that the food product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), (2) an on-pack symbol or (3) a QR or bar code that consumers could scan with their smartphones.

“Unless we act now, Vermont law denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace is the law of the land,” Roberts said. “Our marketplace – both consumers and producers – needs a national biotechnology standard to avoid chaos in interstate commerce.” 

Vermont’s law requiring GMO labeling – which prompted the committee to take action to prevent a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws – goes into effect July 1, but it will not be enforced until January.

The Roberts/Stabenow agreement would establish a national, mandatory system of disclosure for food that contains GMO ingredients. 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.

Key provisions of the bipartisan proposal include: 

  • Pre-emption – immediately prohibits states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered. 
  • National uniform standard – the U.S. Department of Agriculture establishes, through rule-making, a uniform national disclosure standard for human food that is or may be bioengineered. 
  • Disclosure – requires mandatory disclosure with several options, including on-package text, a symbol or a link to a website (QR code or similar technology); small food manufacturers will be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements; very small manufacturers and restaurants are exempt.
  • Meat – foods where meat, poultry and egg products are the main ingredient are exempt. 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 bioengineered ingredients.

Stabenow also 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.

Finally, the agreement contains important provisions that uphold strong consumer protection laws at both the state and federal levels. Stabenow worked to secure these provisions to ensure that the bill would not impede on states' rights.

The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) welcomed the flexibility offered in the disclosure requirement that would allow SmartLabel technology to be used. More than 35 companies are already using the initiative, which provides detailed information ranging from how the food is produced to ingredients beyond just genetically engineered food inclusions. By mid-June, more than 500 products are expected to be using the SmartLabel, and a thousand more products are likely to be added in the next several weeks. GMA projects that, by the end of 2017, more than 34,000 products will be included.

“America’s food industry fully supports the disclosure provisions in this legislation. GMA members are committed to making available the product information that consumers want. We are pleased to see that the legislation enables transparency, clarity and consistency in disclosure and reflects the wide variety of ways that consumers will get this information about the foods they buy,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of GMA.

The agriculture industry urged quick approval of the legislation in the Senate.

National Grain and 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 can 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. 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.”

Roberts’ staff told Feedstuffs that they are working with the Senate majority leader to get time on the full Senate floor for a vote, but no timeline has been set yet.

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