Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has continued to make a case for Congress to step up and fix the patchwork of state or local food labeling laws. While speaking at the National Farmers Union convention and Commodity Classic in recent days, he has upped the ante and said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is ready to step in if needed.
Vilsack has taken it upon himself in recent months to try to reach a compromise on biotech food labeling among the industry. After seven hours and no compromise, he has now taken it upon himself to help push Congress along in its efforts. Last summer, the House passed a bill that would pre-empt state efforts and set up a voluntary biotech labeling system similar to the organic labeling system administered by USDA.
In the Senate, key Democrats have said only a mandatory labeling system will do. Two different proposals have been formally introduced in the past two weeks. The first, from Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), would direct USDA to set up nationwide standards for voluntary disclosure of biotech ingredients. Those nationwide standards would pre-empt biotech labeling laws at the state and local levels, including Vermont’s law, which takes effect July 1. The bill also directs USDA to provide science-based education and outreach about biotechnology, in coordination with other federal agencies.
Also introduced in the Senate is a proposal from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) that would amend the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to require food manufacturers to disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Panel in one of four ways, but none that demonize biotechnology or require disclosure on the front panel.
Vilsack has been consistent in his call for urgency. “There is a need for action," Vilsack said at Commodity Classic, the annual conference for corn, wheat, soybean and sorghum growers.
Also, while speaking at the National Farmers Union Convention in Minnesota on March 7, he said it would be “chaotic” to have state-by-state rules regarding the labeling of food derived from genetically modified crops. This could lead to consumer confusion, higher food prices and even market access issues, Vilsack said, noting that “Congress needs to address this, and they need to address it now.”
The secretary added that it is possible to have a mandatory process that uses a “smart label” to balance consumers' right to know what's in their food without punishing farmers or conveying the wrong impression about food safety.
“If Congress is unwilling to make these tough decisions, ... then delegate the responsibility to the Department of Agriculture,” Vilsack said. “We’ll be happy to make the tough decision.”