Ag Policy Blog

GMO Labeling Debate Complicated by Meat Issues

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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On almost a daily basis the group calling itself the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food puts out a news release counting down the legislative days until July 1 when the Vermont GMO labeling law goes into effect. The group has reached a point that the lobbyists writing the news releases make it sound as if the U.S. food supply will run out if Congress doesn't preempt the Vermont law.

"There’s no time to delay. The future of the American food supply is at stake, and there are just 12 legislative days to save it," stated the news release on Thursday.

Out in Washington for Friday's crop report -- where I can safely assert the food supply will remain OK -- I still had time Thursday to prowl around Capitol Hill seeking some understanding of the potential GMO resolution.

The fate of any GMO labeling bill is in the hands of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee ranking member. Like the Capitol Hill reporting crowd, I hung out for a time Thursday by the elevators outside the Senate chamber waiting for Roberts and Stabenow. Roberts, while squeezing into an elevator, said of talks on a GMO compromise, "We just had a good, productive meeting. That is all I am saying."

Stabenow was more challenging and is achieving some type of legendary status among congressional reporters by slipping in and out of the chamber without going past the reporter crowd. I missed her.

But I talked with some people Thursday with knowledge of the debate gridlocking the talks. The issue was brought up a couple of weeks ago at a Senate Ag hearing on livestock but the point sort of flew over my head at the time. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., asked representatives of the livestock industry about pizzas being labeled as having GMOs if the pizza were a cheese pizza, but not having the same label if the pizza has meat on it.

It turns out the big sticking point is how to label processed foods that have ingredients from biotech crops, but also have a meat product. There's agreement that meat or dairy products should not be labeled as a GMO simply because the livestock or poultry producing the meat, dairy or eggs was raised eating GMO crops. A hamburger or pork chop is not a GMO food.

However, that's not where the logic or argument ends. Roberts and the livestock industry also want to say that any processed food containing any meat product should be exempt from any national GMO label regardless of the other ingredients that come from biotech crops. Say a can of soup has high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, hydrolyzed soy protein or soy oil, but the soup also contains beef stock. Under the argument against labeling anything from livestock, then that soup would not be labeled containing GMOs. The same logic would apply to TV dinners, pizza, etc., basically any food containing something from meat would get this exclusion if Roberts and the livestock industry stick to their guns.

So while critics of the Vermont law lament the exclusions built into it for some local products, industries are working to make sure there are entire segments of processed food that would be exempt regardless of whether the food actually contains ingredients from biotech crops.

Keep in mind that even after the senators come to terms they would still have to conference with the House bill that does not mandate a national label, but instead would create a voluntary label program at USDA while preempting any state labeling schemes.

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