June 30, 2016
The ongoing legislative battle around the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has reached a turning point. Despite serious concerns about confusing, inconsistent language and potential loopholes that would limit the bill’s scope being raised in a June 27 Food and Drug Administration’s Technical Assistance document prepared for Congress, a GMO labeling compromise bill negotiated by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) passed a key procedural hurdle late Wednesday night.
In Wednesday’s motion to proceed to consideration of the bill, a procedural vote often considered a sign of where the votes lie for passage of a bill, the compromise GMO labeling bill received a positive vote of 68-29, laying the foundation for eventual passage. On the heels of this promising sign, votes to end debate on the bill and then move to final passage are scheduled for next week.
The Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill would, if passed, preempt state authority and nullify Vermont’s GMO labeling law – Vermont’s bill is the first legislation of its kind in the nation and is set to take on effect July 1. In place of state authority, the Senate deal would establish a complex federal “bioengineered” food disclosure system, which would give large food companies three options for labeling GMO ingredients: a barcode or QR code that would require consumers use a smartphone to find more information about a product, a symbol (to be created by USDA) on the package, or an actual on-package statement that the product contains GMOs.
Since the compromise deal was reached, food and agriculture groups have been weighing in. Biotech and food industry groups and associations have lined up on the pro-side in support of the bill, along with some pro-mandatory labeling businesses and groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents to the bill have based their latest arguments on the FDA’s Technical Assistance document, which raised a number of concerns about the language in the bill. A key concern of the report was the bill’s narrow scope, particularly the bill’s definition of “bioengineering”, which would severely limit what products would and wouldn’t need to be labeled. The FDA went on to say that the bill’s phrase on food “’that contains genetic material’ will likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to the labeling requirements. For instance, oil made from GE soy would not have any genetic material in it”.
The bill would limit coverage to foods where the genetic modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature. According to FDA, “It may be difficult to demonstrate that a particular modification could not be obtained through conventional breeding (or even that it could not occur in nature).”
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who introduced his own mandatory GMO labeling bill earlier this year, has also raised concerns about the lack of enforcement or recall provisions in the bill.
The final fate of the Roberts-Stabenow compromise remains to be seen. Senators have headed home for the 4th of July holiday break where many will likely get an earful from constituents on both sides of the debate. Given the strong support in Wednesday’s test vote, however, the door may be closing on advocates’ ability to influence the bill.
If the compromise bill passes the Senate, it will then have to be approved for adoption by the House or be reconciled with the House’s own voluntary GMO labeling bill, which passed the chamber in 2015 by a vote of 275-150. As it stands, the House bill is miles apart from the Roberts-Stabenow compromise bill and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) has yet to publicly declare support or opposition to the compromise.
After July 5 there are but eight legislative days left before both houses of Congress adjourn for the rest of the summer, making it questionable as to whether or not a bill will reach the President’s desk before the next recess.
Categories: General Interest