Groups Urge Deal on GMO Label

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By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- Key leaders in agriculture and food industries pleaded Thursday for leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee to strike a deal on how to inform consumers that foods may contain ingredients from crops derived from genetically modified organisms.

A spokesperson on the Senate Agriculture Committee said late in the afternoon that no new details were available, but senators were meeting right then to try to reach a deal that would achieve 60 votes to pass the Senate. Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have been the key senators seeking to reach a deal.

Industry leaders from the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food held a press conference early Thursday urging senators to reach a deal. They declined to discuss specific issues holding up a deal among senators but said they believe the Senate negotiators were close to dealing with the final few details of getting an agreement.

"Obviously, this has been a difficult issue," said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. "We've been at this for over two years, so we acknowledge this is a controversial debate. Our point is we believe the discussions have moved to a point described as 'within inches.'"

Food companies and agricultural groups are fearful of the looming reality that the Vermont labeling law for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will go into effect on July 1. Further, industry groups expect other labeling laws to possibly start in Maine and other states. New York state lawmakers, for instance, are also moving ahead on a possible labeling bill.

Despite congressional nature to leave business unfinished, the food lobby opposing the Vermont law is seeking an improbable task. The coalition expects the U.S. Senate -- known as a slow, deliberative body -- to immediately pass a bill to preempt the Vermont law and send it to the House and get it passed there, then rush into quick conference talks, pass a final bill and ship it to President Barack Obama's desk before July 1. The task is even more improbable given that the House is set to go on break next Friday.

Leaders of the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food oppose a mandatory state or federal label that would declare on a package that a food contains ingredients from GMO crops. The groups argue that a GMO label would cause activists to simply target labeled foods that contain ingredients from biotech crops. They pointed to people such as the "Food Babe" using social media to target those foods.

"We believe these labels don't provide consumers with any useful information," said Pam Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "They will be seen as a warning and they will be used to stigmatize perfectly safe food and beverage products."

American Soybean Association CEO Steve Censky said lack of action by the Senate "really threatens the livelihoods of the farmers we represent." A mandatory GMO label would cause the food industry to shift away from food ingredients derived from biotechnology, he said.

"Health agencies from around the world repeatedly have affirmed the safety of biotech crops," Censky said. "Yet because of the lack of Senate action, we are on the verge of having one state with a bit over 600,000 people dictate nationwide food policy and stigmatization of biotechnology through on-pack labeling."

Bailey said the coalition has been willing to compromise by including QR codes or icons on packages that can be read by smartphones, as well as links to websites and toll-free numbers that would inform consumers about whether ingredients contain products from genetically engineered crops.

"Unfortunately, it seems the anti-GMO activists from the other side haven't budged from their demands that nothing less than mandatory, on-package GMO labels are needed," Bailey said.

Bailey said a mandatory GMO label would not pass Congress. She also highlighted that voters have rejected mandatory labels in multiple ballot measures across the country. Bailey said several companies are already using smart labels. She said that by the end of 2017, more than 35,000 products will have the smart-label technology.

The House passed a bipartisan bill last year preempting the Vermont law and stating that foods would only require labels for genetically engineered products if FDA determines the food causes a health risk. The House bill does set up a voluntary non-GMO labeling program that would be run by USDA, similar to the current organic certification program.

The initial Senate bill defeated earlier this year was similar to the House bill with some minor tweaks, but it received only 48 votes when such a bill needs 60 votes to pass.

Already, several major companies have either added labels or reformulated ingredients in processed foods to prepare for the Vermont law. The Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association believe their members may stop selling into Vermont because they are fearful of the requirements.

"We expect there will be chaos in the market after July 1 if legislation to preempt Vermont is not passed," Bailey said.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG)