Roberts proposes GMO bill in bid to speed Senate action (via Agri-Pulse Communications)

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts proposed legislation to block state GMO labeling laws, warning that time is running out to protect farmers and food companies from requirements set to take effect in Vermont this July.

The Kansas Republican also announced plans for his committee to debate and vote on the legislation next Thursday. 

He said he was open to changes in the seven-page bill but couldn’t wait any longer to start moving legislation, given the growing industry anxiety about the looming Vermont law. Roberts has been discussing a compromise bill with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, but they don’t have a deal yet. 

Late Friday, Stabenow issued a statement saying she supported  Roberts in his “urgency to address this critical issue and remains committed to working with him to find a solution that provides consumers with access to information they desire and certainty for our food industry.  

“There is still a lot of work to do to get to a bill that can get the broad bipartisan support needed to pass the U.S. Senate.”

Roberts said his draft bill “serves as a framework to find a solution for a patchwork of laws, and I will continue to work with members of the Agriculture Committee on potential amendments. However, we are out of time. The time to act is now. Negotiations will continue in an effort to reach Committee agreement.”

In addition to preempting state labeling laws, his bill also would require the Agriculture Department to set national standards for voluntarily labeling bioengineered ingredients. The bill would define bioengineering relatively narrowly as involving recombinant DNA techniques that make modifications that “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

In addition, USDA and the Health and Human Services Department would be required to survey consumer knowledge about agricultural biotechnology to determine whether consumers have access to information about genetically engineered products. The results of the study would be due in four years.

The bill stops short of mandating that companies disclose genetically engineered ingredients, either on labels or through a smartphone and web-based system, called SmartLabel, that the industry has recently launched as an alternative to listing information on packages. 

Stabenow has insisted that the bill would have to provide for mandatory disclosure of GMOs in order to get enough Democratic support to pass the Senate. 

Roberts said that he didn’t believe the House would accept mandatory disclosure. In interviews with Agri-Pulse, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has said he is opposed to mandatory disclosure but didn’t rule out negotiations on that point.

The House last summer passed a preemption bill, 275-150, but negotiations bogged down in the Senate last fall when key Democratic senators balked at allowing a preemption measure to be included in the fiscal 2016 spending bill that was enacted in December.

The House bill, called the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), also would set standards for labeling foods as non-GMO. Roberts didn’t include those provisions in his legislation. 

The Campbell Soup Co. announced last month that it would start labeling its products for the presence of biotech ingredients and dropped out of the industry effort to get Congress to pass a preemption bill. 

But other companies, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, continue to press for legislation that would allow the SmartLabel system to be the primary, if not the sole, means of disclosing GMOs. 

GMA last week sent a letter to six Democratic senators, seeking to assure them that the SmartLabel could be easily accessed by low-income shoppers while also protecting consumer privacy. 

The bill would likely need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor and Roberts says he isn’t sure all 54 Republicans would support his legislation. 

“This isn’t really a partisan issue. This really falls out  geographically, so there may be some Republicans who have concerns for this.  But we won’t know until we have a bill,” Roberts said in an interview this week with Agri-Pulse.

“We can sit across the table and talk about this clear past July, and have the wrecking ball come through the whole damn agriculture production industry.” 

The key points of the Roberts bill appeared to line up with what industry representatives were pushing for during two days of unsuccessful negotiations led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

Vilsack told a House subcommittee that the talks broke down over whether GMOs had to be disclosed on food labels or whether it would be enough to ensure that electronic disclosure would be adequate to serve consumer needs.

The Roberts bill wouldn’t provide any additional funding to USDA and HHS to carry out the study or the consumer education campaign for which USDA would be responsible. 

Food industry and farm groups aapplauded Roberts for moving ahead with the bill. 

“This common-sense solution will provide consumers with more information about ingredients in their food and beverage products and prevent a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling mandates,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

But Gary Hirshberg, chairmen of the pro-labeling group Just Label It, urged the committee to reject the legislation. “Allowing food companies to make voluntary disclosures will simply perpetuate the status quo that has left consumers in the dark.”

For a link to the Chairman’s Mark: http://www.agriculture.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/EDW16221.pdf

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